On June 7, a lightning strike ignited what became one of the largest fires in Arizona’s history, covering more than 48,000 acres before it was extinguished.
Despite the size of the fire, none of the residential or astronomic areas on Mount Graham were burned. The only losses were several forest service water tanks and minor structures. There were no severe injuries to any emergency response or civilian personnel.
However, the monsoon rains that helped control the fire are now causing flooding with potential to cause severe damage to Route 366, the only access road to the housing developments and telescopes at the top of the mountain. Though flooding is common during monsoon season, the fire wiped out much of the underbrush that would ordinarily control washout.
According to Dean McAlister, public information officer for the Coronado National Forest, this is expected to result in “two to five times more damage than normal.”
The Arizona Department of transportation is expecting to fall back onto the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads program to help foot the multimillion dollar repair bill. ERFO is a federal program designed to aid in the response to natural disasters to speed the re-opening of important thoroughfares.
In an effort to prevent further topsoil removal, the Forest Service is using Single Engine Air Tankers, effectively modified crop dusters, to spread a non-persistent strain of barley over a thousand acres of severely burned land. The grain will stabilize the soil for up to two years while allowing local trees and grasses to re-vegetate. The sterile barley will then die without reproducing, leaving only native species to return to the area. The SEAT program has suffered from some delays due to weather, but is expected to proceed on schedule over the next two weeks.
The last fire to strike the area was the Nuttall fire in 2004. Also caused by lightning, it burned nearly 30,000 acres and caused $10 million in damage. Fires like that are a critical part of the Ponderosa pine and mixed conifer ecosystem. Underburn fires clear out smaller saplings, bushes and leaf litter, allowing new growth and returning nutrients to the soil while larger trees are protected by bark.
The cycle of renewal happens roughly every five to 25 years and in the end leaves a more beautiful forest for all of us to enjoy.
David Capo is a local photographer and a recent graduate of Canyon del Oro High School. His work can be found online at davidcapophotography.com.