The Bighorn Fire continued its spread northeast across the Catalina Mountains over the weekend, reducing its containment levels by more than half. The wildfire, which started from a lightning storm on June 5, had burned more than 58,000 acres as of Monday, June 22.
The weekend also saw the fire spread down the southern Catalinas toward foothills' neighborhoods, resulting in a large amount of smoke. Evacuation orders remain in place for areas like Mount Lemmon and Summerhaven, as well as the southern areas of Oracle. In addition, areas of Catalina, Oracle and the Catalina Foothills have a “set” order, and should be prepared to evacuate if ordered.
On Friday, June 19, the Bighorn Fire was at 40 percent containment. However, the fire rapidly spread through the Oracle Ridge and Peppersauce areas. The largest change occurred on June 17, when strong winds fanned the flames across the mountain ridges, burning more than 12,000 acres. Before June 17, the most destructive day burned less than 3,700 acres. Since June 17, every day has seen more than 5,500 acres burned.
The gusty weather not only accelerated the fire’s progression, but impeded aerial support for the fire crews. Luckily, so far no structures have been burned in Summerhaven.
"One of the big stories from last night is that we were able to get our black line, our burn operation, over even further," said fire operations section chief Travis Mayberry in a June 22 meeting. "We feel very good about the threat level to San Manuel and Oracle being greatly diminished."
On the night of June 21, one of the firefighters protecting the Summerhaven area suffered a "medical emergency" and had to be helicoptered off the mountain to a medical center. Mayberry highlighted the importance of staying in accessible areas for situations like this, which makes fighting the fire in the canyons and steep slopes especially difficult.
"The containment is just a measure of the total perimeter, basically. So as the fire grows, the containment is going to go down," Mayberry said. "So we're prepping. We have this outside perimeter ready and identified with our lines in place. But the fire's edge is continuing to grow and we're not showing it as controlled. If you look at it in terms of our lines being prepared and ready to go, from a containment standpoint, it would be much higher. But some of this stuff just has to come into country where we can engage it."
According to the National Forest Service, nearly 1,000 personnel are working to fight the Bighorn Fire, with helicopters, planes and fire engines.
“The plan is to bring the fire off the steep slopes, which have grass and brush, and down into the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, which is a lot easier to work in and manage,” said wildfire operations chief Todd Abel in a meeting with the sheriff’s department on June 11.
Fire crews remind the public that drones are prohibited over the fire area, as firefighting aircraft are busy and must be grounded in drones' presence. According to NFS, on June 8, a drone was observed over the Bighorn Fire’s southern perimeter, which "forced the aircraft suppression effort to be halted, endangering the lives of on the ground firefighters and the air crews at a critical time during the height of the burning period." This was the second such incident in three days.