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Archive for July, 2012


Children learn important lessons about the destructive nature of water running loose after storms in the desert.

Power has been restored to all of the 20,000 folks left without cooling in the desert after the violent storm

It was a dark and stormy afternoon, more than 1000 lightning strikes were recorded when two brief but fierce storms blew through Tucson, the storms downed power lines and trees, produced flash flooding and prompted several swift-water rescues. Roads were closed for weeks following the 2 1/2 inches of rain that fell in 90 minutes all over Tucson. Hail as large as 1 inch in diameter fell in midtown, wind gusts reached 60 mph and Tucson Electric Power Co. crews worked overnight to restore power to about 20,000 customers in the Tucson area and 1,800 in Marana. Six power poles were left leaning or by Tucson Mall, one smashed the legendary golden arches sign at McDonald’s and eight power poles were down along Tangerine Road in Marana. The hardest-hit area was northwest Tucson, which got 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 inches of rain. The southwest side received between 1 and 2 inches of rainfall. Tucson Mall’s roof itself was reportedly damaged, but the extent was unreported. Law enforcement and firefighters responded to multiple calls of motorists in washes, one submerged vehicle at East River Road and North First Avenue. Officials with the Tucson Fire Department fielded 868 calls in a four-hour period Sunday. The Northwest Fire District dispatched firefighters to two swift-water rescues at a wash and a flooded intersection. No one was injured.

I lived next to this wash for 35 years and I have never seen it this deep before.

Running fast and furious at Flood stage

Kids play in the culvert that is fed from the Carmack Wash behind my house.

The Sunny South Western United States, is on the northern periphery of the North American Monsoon. Monsoon winds in the Southwest shift from a prevailing westerly or northwesterly direction in the winter and spring to a more southerly direction in the summer. The moisture comes from two sources: Southeast flow around high pressure in the upper atmosphere helps to transport middle and high-level moisture into the Southwest all the way from the Gulf of Mexico. Surface moisture arrives on a southerly flow out of the Gulf of California and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Combine these two moisture sources with daytime heating and upper disturbances and you have the ingredients for thunderstorms with heavy down pours, frequent lightning, strong winds and even dust storms known as haboobs.

In Tucson over the year, Pelicans from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico are frequently blown off course and end up in Tucson, surrounded by the Sonoran Desert where they are captured and taken to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum until they get enough and then the whole brood is flown back home in Mexico. Happily due to recent rainfall, fire restrictions have been lifted in Coronado National Forest and Saguaro National Park. The restrictions banning campfires and smoking in both areas have been in effect since the beginning of June. Coronado National Forest visitors are encouraged to practice fire safety and not to leave a fire unattended unless it is “cold to the touch.” Campfires can be built only in designated areas in fire rings or grills in Saguaro National Park.

Don’t drive into Flooded Washes

Her male companion swam to safety but rescuers dropped this lady a line from the extended ladder of a fire truck so she could be pulled from her car.

Because of the frequent whitewater rescues that ensue after every monsoon storm the Arizona legislature passed the “Stupid Motorist Law”, which corresponds to section 28-910 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, and states that any motorist who becomes stranded after driving around barricades to enter a flooded stretch of roadway may be charged for the cost of their rescue. The need for this law came from the lack of storm sewers in the deserts of the Southwestern United States, combined with heavy rainfall in the desert, usually associated with the summer. This lack of adequate drainage leads to short-term flooding. Many desert cities and towns don’t use culverts to channel minor washes beneath the roadway. Only major washes and floodplains have bridges over them. Consequently, during rain storms, storm runoff flows over the roadway. During hard, strong rain storms, the washes, underpasses, and large storm drains can flow fast and deep enough to pick up an automobile and carry it downstream. During particularly strong floods, one might see a motorist stuck in the middle of a wash, sitting on the roof of a dead car submerged to the windows. In such cases, if public emergency services (such as a fire department, or paramedics) are called to rescue the motorist and tow the vehicle out of danger, the cost of those services can be billed to the motorist, up to a maximum of $2,000…

Kelly Brittle hangs on to the roll bar of his completely submerged pickup truck stranded in the middle of the Canyon del Oro Wash. Forty firefighters and rescue personnel worked for 90 minutes before Brittle was pulled from the rushing waters. The 35-year-old man was suffering from hypothermia and listed in stable condition following the rescue by white water rescuers who shot a rope across the scene and pulled Brittle from his submerged pickup.

Hikers need to head for high terrain and should check weather reports before heading into canyons, particularly slot canyons in Northern Arizona. More than a decade ago, this coming august, eleven people died in a slot in Antelope Canyon, AZ. The hiking guide was the only survivor, stripped bare of his clothes by the screaming speed of the water, completely covered in bruises and left temporarily blind by silt trapped under his eyelids, Francisco “Pancho” Quintana would be the only survivor of the flash flood. The rest of the victims drowned, and all but one of the recovered bodies were found in Lake Powell, miles downstream.

Rain falling miles away fill this normally dry wash raging bank to bank.

Kids playing in washes are at risk, motorist have been pulled from their vehicles and their bodies found miles downstream and some pulled from their vehicles in downtown Tucson have had their bodies recovered six months later when later storms removed all the sand and uncovers their bodies. About 75 percent of flash-flood deaths occur at night. Half of those victims die in automobiles. Many deaths occur when people drive around road barricades that clearly indicate that the road is gone.

For extensive information, resources and data about flooding in the U.S. from the National Weather Service visit http://www.srh.noaa.gov/rfcshare/ffg.php for General Flood Preparedness before a flood during spring and summer when rain fall can be heavy and can produce flash floods in a matter of hours. There are a few common sense preparations everyone can take to reduce their risks from harm and property destruction. The following lists steps everyone can take to prepare for any type of flood emergency:
Protect your self for driving safety in heavy rain fall take note six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and possible stalling. A foot of water will float many vehicles. Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles including sport utility vehicles and pick-ups. A local auto dealer parts house will make $30,000 after a heavy down pour because motorists often run too quickly through flooded washes pushing water up into the engine compartment and blasting a hole through the engine block. Drive slowly and carefully. Flash floods occur within six hours of the beginning of heavy rainfall.

Get out of areas subject to flooding, including dips, low spots, canyons, washes, etc.
Avoid already flooded and high velocity flow areas. Do NOT attempt to cross flowing streams.
If driving, remember the road may not exist under flood waters. Turn around and go another way. DO NOT drive through flooded roadways! You could be stranded or trapped.
If the vehicle stalls, leave it immediately and seek higher ground. Rapidly rising water can engulf your car and sweep it away. Remember, it’s better to be WET than DEAD! Be especially cautious at night when it is harder to see.
Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams or hike along washes, particularly during threatening weather.
Children should NEVER play around high water, storm drains, viaducts or arroyos.

If you come upon a flowing stream where the water is above your ankles, STOP! Turn around and go another way. If water is moving swiftly, even water six inches deep can knock you off your feet.

Flash floods occur within a few minutes or hours of excessive rainfall. Flash floods can roll boulders, tear out trees, destroy buildings and bridges, and scour out new channels. Rapidly rising water can reach heights of 30 feet or more. Furthermore, flash-flood producing rains can trigger catastrophic mud slides. You will not always have a warning that these deadly, sudden floods are coming. Most flood deaths are due to FLASH FLOODS.

On July 16, 2012 The Arizona Republic-12 News Breaking News Team reported two people were injured after they were swept away by flash-flood waters at a stream near Sierra Vista just before 9 p.m., a 22-year-old man and 16-year-old girl were walking in the stream in the lower part of the Carr Canyon campground when a wall of water washed over them, says the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office. The water was from a torrential storm on the Huachuca Mountains. The man walked to a home along Carr Canyon Road and told the residents that he did not know what happened to the girl. The sheriff’s search and rescue team searched the area for the girl. Near morning, the Department of Public Safety helicopter found the girl on the north side of the wash less than a quarter of a mile downstream. Paramedics walked her out and treated her for mild hypothermia, cuts and bruises. The man was taken to the hospital and treated for cuts and bruises.


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South of Alpine, Az on Highway 191 last year’s Arizona-New Mexico Wallow Fire jumped the roadway in places and attacked old forest stands and roadsides…

Large wildfires raging out of control have become a summertime event in the South West United States during the past decade. As global warming has spread its accumulative affects upon the forests of the West, years of fire suppression allowing small trees to thicken forests and ground cover to grow, dry out and die becoming ready fuel for lightning strikes during the monsoon months. Mother natures cleansing affect on forests from annual fires have slowed due to intense fire suppression attempting to save homes built into the forest and large chunks of National Forests. Man-made fires, have become more and more commonplace as folks try to commune with nature and now find themselves running from it. This year’s Colorado Waldo Canyon fire, the worst in the state’s history turned deadly, killing two in its path as hot winds fan and push flame across fire breaks, highways and into residential subdivisions and endangered the U.S. Air Force Academy on the edge of Colorado Spring, Colorado. More than 32,000 residents have been evacuated and 346 homes were lost, that fire is now 77% contained and is being fought by 1500 firefighter from all over the Unites States. As this post is written, fires are being fought in most all the states of the American South West, the website http://www.inciweb.orgshows closures, containment, sat-maps and safety warnings. The site is being constantly updated by the boots on the ground at each and every fire showing assets involved in the fight for containment.

As Colorado residents were allowed to drive through their neighborhoods and glimpse their fire-attacked subdivisions, some found homes untouched, mail still in the mailbox and melted bowling balls, most however, found little they still recognized and now bears are moving from the forests and foraging through the city trash left behind by folks escaping the fires according to the Denver Post who issued the below multiple state round-up.

— Utah: Fire commanders say Utah’s largest wildfire has consumed more than 150 square miles and shows no sign of burning itself out. Hundreds of firefighters are trying to hold the Clay Springs fire from advancing on the ranching towns of Scipio and Mills on the edge of Utah’s west desert. The fire has destroyed one summer home and threatens 75 others. The fire was 48 percent contained on Sunday.

— Montana: Crews in eastern Montana strengthened fire lines overnight on a 246-square-mile complex of blazes burning about 10 miles west of Lame Deer. More than 500 firefighters are now at the lightning-caused fires that started Monday and have destroyed more than 30 structures.

— Wyoming: A wind-driven wildfire in a sparsely populated area of southeastern Wyoming exploded from eight square miles to nearly 58 square miles in a single day, and an unknown number of structures have burned. About 200 structures were considered threatened.

— Idaho: Firefighters in eastern Idaho had the 1,038-acre Charlotte fire 80 percent contained Sunday but remained cautious with a forecast of high winds and hot temperatures that could put hundreds of homes at risk.

— Colorado: The last evacuees from the High Park Fire in northern Colorado have been allowed to return home as crews fully contained the blaze. The 136-square-mile fire killed one resident and destroyed 259 houses, a state record until the fire near Colorado Springs.

-New Mexico: Baldy-Whitewater fires have burned out the heart of the Gila wilderness, both fires are lightning caused blazes in the New Mexico Gila Wilderness, the flames has grown together causing the worst forest fire in New Mexico’s history. More than ten per cent of the Gila has been lost to this blaze and experts say it will between 80-200 years before the damage from this fire is restored. Firefighter have been unable to get the upper hand on the blaze and expect to fight the blaze until the beginning of the monsoons. At present that fire is 87% contained.

At the top of Az State Road 191 lies the Mogollon Rim where the Blue Outlook looks over the entire state of Arizona into Mexico more than a 100 miles out. In early morning a hike there usually reflected a fantasy world where dwarfs and elves might hide in the trees and poke you as you pass. Today it’s gone.

In the early seventies, I fell in love with the Hannagan Meadow area in eastern Arizona. Old Forest stands blocked out the sky and sun, opening up to cienegas and large Aspen stands born from other fires, today much of that forest is gone, lost to the Wallow fire.

In Arizona, the Grapevine Fire began July lst from a monsoon caused lightning strike and is 10% contained and has blackened 14,000 acres and is being attacked by seven wildfire crews from all over southern Arizona. As the state moves into the 4th of July Holiday, fear mounts as campers retreat from the desert heat seeking cooler and higher altitudes and their increased presence increases the chance of careless or accidental fires. Arizona in the last decade, each year has broken state records for wildfires.

Smoke from the Rodeo-Chediski blaze in 2002 it fill the air all across the United States Midwest, affecting air quality for all residents.

Last years Wallow fire shown in this picture was taken on June 9, 2011 as the fire’s total hit 400,000 acres–but on June 13, 2011, the Wallow fire become Arizona’s largest wildfire on record. The total hit 538,000 acres (800 square miles). Grew bigger than Arizona’s previous record fire the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002 which burned 467,000 acres. The big difference between the two megafires, though, was the damage. The Wallow Fire has been far less destructive than its predecessor, destroying only 31 homes compared with 465 lost a decade ago. Nearly 6,000 people were evacuated. A DC-10 Air Tanker, capable of dropping up to 12,000 gallons of fire retardant in seconds, was deployed to help fight the fire. Caleb Joshua Malboeuf, 26, of Benson, and David Wayne Malboeuf, 24, of Tucson, were charged with five low-level federal offenses related to the campfire they started in late May and are alleged to have not extinguished properly. The blaze destroyed 32 homes, four businesses and more than 30 barns, sheds and other buildings during the six weeks that it burned out of control in the Apache National Forest.The blaze cost more than $79 million to suppress, according to court records, and took a heavy toll on the mountain hamlet of Greer, where 21 homes were lost. As it moved through the forest, the fire nearly destroyed the communities of Alpine, Nutrioso and Eagar along the way, the 2011 Wallow fire was contained on July 8, one year ago.

The San Franciscan Peaks are constantly plagued by lightning strikes and man-made fires.

Harts Prairie Road showcases many Aspen stands which follow fires pretty closely after a Ponderoso Pine forest is wiped out, Aspen quickly replace the old stand.

On going research from Northern Arizona University suggests wildfires may cause soils to release large amounts of greenhouse gas that could potentially speed up climate change. Some researchers are blaming massive wildfire on overgrown forests. Four of the worst fires in Arizona have happened in the last ten years, and the head of the U.S. Forest service says to expect more fires like that across the West.

Driving south AZSR260 toward Big Lake, AZ motorists can view the impact of the 2011 Wallow Fire now Arizona’s largest fire on record, claiming 800 square miles.

Rodeo Fire near Show Low, Az June 28, 2002

William Wallace Covington of Northern Arizona University has been studying Arizona forest for decades. He says there are just too many trees for the climate in the West. He advocates for the U.S. to recreate an “ecological” logging industry to restore the traditional landscape. Working with the U.S. Forest Service, Covington conducted 60 to 70 prescribed burns in the ponderosa pine forests around Flagstaff, learning in the process that fire alone was not the answer. Low-intensity fires didn’t kill enough of the small-diameter trees that have increased tree density in Arizona’s ponderosa forests from 20 to 50 per acre to about 900 trees per acre. Hot fires worked, but they also killed some big trees. A few of the fires he set were “just a hair-trigger from a crown fire,” Covington said. His current prescription for restoring Arizona’s forests to presettlement conditions calls for the forests to be thinned and then burned, with protocols developed with the U.S. Forest Service by the Ecological Restoration Institute Covington created at NAU. Four Arizona forests – the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves – have secured funding from Congress and adopted a plan to thin and burn 2.4 million acres of ponderosa pine forest through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. Now the Ecological Restoration Institute is working on new methods of restoring forests blackened by recent 100,000-plus-acre fires.

Fire assets constantly land and take off during the fight to control last year’s blaze.

While the Wallow Fire was stealing headlines from every blaze in the South West of the United States, Southern Arizona had two smaller but huge on their own scale burning at the same time. The man-caused HorseShoe2 Fire in Southeast Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountain Range was burning 223,000 acres and further west near Sierra Vista, Az the Monument Fire burned 22 homes through some canyon subdivisions evacuating folks from their homes while firefighter tried to defend the timberline homes.
Chiricahua HorseShoe2 Fire

On Sierra Vista, Az southeast side Evacuees from the Monument Fire set up camp outside a shopping center to hang with friends and wait until they could return home.

Lining the northside of the Pinery Canyon Road leading up canyon toward Rustler’s Roost Campground now closed due to heavy fire damage to the Chiricahua forest.

The Chiricahua Mountain Range in Southeast Arizona, were hit pretty hard by the HorseShoe2 Fire reports Christopher Guiterman PhD student in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Photo by Chris Guiterman

Many of those trees are Apache pine, which can re-sprout from the stump if the roots are healthy and the trees are young (a rare feat for pines) but as of last November when I visited down there, many of these same trees were completely killed. Attached is a photo of a new sprout. The oak trees and many other species will re-sprout and re-occupy the site rapidly, however. The fire through this area was pretty intense and had severe effects on mortality – note that the trees are black throughout the stem and branches, this indicates a high-intensity crown fire. Given that there have been few fires in the last 100+ years down there, it’s doubtful previous fires have had the kind of severity over such a large area that the Horseshoe2 fire had. Fires these days are different – we have high fuel loads and hot and dry weather. The historical fire regimes in the south west had fires occurring with higher frequency and usually low severity. Fire was historically quite common all across the Southwest and in the Chiricauha’s where flame would sweep from the grasslands up canyon and eventually would reach the Pine forest on top, as it did last year in Pinery Canyon.

Julio Robertson uses a chainsaw to clear a fence line destroyed by falling timber near the summitt of the Pinery Canyon Road. This fence kept cattle and wildlife from the road and off the canyons steeps slopes.

This Turkey Creek historic home was wiped out stream side but the mosaic blaze missed other homes in the same area. Aerial seeding has covered the hillsides to get roots in the ground to prevent additional flood damage.

Two Tree Ring Studies from the University of Arizona Tree Ring Laboratory show centuries of fire history, one demonstrated from 1700 up to 1866, tree rings in the Chiricahua Range saw fires in these canyons, forest and grasslands burning every four to eight years showing the essential character of fire function to reduce catastropic fire risk and ultimately restored those systems to a more productive, diverse and sustainable ecology.


In 30 of the 73 fire years fires began in the grassland and entered the canyon’s burning woody fuels, eventually reaching the Ponderosa Pine forest on the Mountains ridge line (As did the HorseShoe2 fire). Another 500 year tree ring study compared the Chiricahua Range to forests in Mexico where fire suppression is minimal or not nearly as effective as in the United States it showed Mexican forest were more open (fewer small tree and more big ones) plus had a thick grass understory as opposed to U.S. forests which are often stunted with a heavy fuel accumulation and show almost no grass.


The longer study showed six major fires between 1685 to 1886 when white settlers began showing up and their cattle began grazing this range. History shows many of these fires could have burn a million acres before burning out like in 1685, 1707, 1765 and 1801 when fires burned broadly during May and June and fire years in 1723, 1789, 1851, 1863 and 1886 heavy fires raked the area between August and September. Strangely from 1801 there was 50 years fire free as opposed to an average fire every 13-31 years earlier in the study. Tree Ring Scientist suggest that flood or debris flows disrupted fire routine when a large flood almost completely scoured vegetation from the canyon middle removing all fuels between the grasslands and the ponderosa pine forest on top. After white man settled the area, heavy grazing and fire management around 1900 began accumulating lots of live and dead fuels over the past 90 years changing this fire ecosystem completely. The result was the HorseShoe2 Fire which instead of improving the forest, it burned it down and will require decades to restore.



The Aspen Fire burned in 2003 for about a month on Mount Lemmon 9,000 feet above Tucson. It burned 84,750 acres and destroyed 340 homes and businesses in the town of Summerhaven,AZ

A total of 121,000 acres of the Coronado National Forest 250,000-acre Santa Catalina Ranger District burned in just two years. The Bullock fire was out in mid-June 2002, it had raged across 36,000 acres of prime timber and grasslands.Firefighters were able to douse it after a favorable shift of winds and breaks created by Catalina Highway and the Control Road down the north side of the mountains to Oracle. The Aspen Fire burned from June 17, 2003 for about a month on Mount Lemmon. It burned 84,750 acres of land, and destroyed 340 homes and businesses in the town of Summerhaven.

After two fire season’s back to back the mountain has been blackened and today is a shadow of its former self.

Damages to electric lines, phone lines, water facilities, streets and sewers totaled $4.1 million. Firefighting cost was about $17 million, and the Forest Service spent $2.7 million to prevent soil loss. In 2002, the year before the fire started, Congress had requested $2,000,000 to cover the implementation of fire prevention measures in the Coronado National Forest. However, that allocation was reduced to about $150,000 in the Congressional budget process. Dean McAlister, fire management officer for Coronado National Forest, said two years of severe fires in Arizona brought national attention and the realization of the need for better forest management plans across the West. They also brought federal funding to pay for thinning fuels, although Coronado isn’t likely to see additional money since much of it has now burned.


This pastoral scene was once found in Catalina State Park on the west side of the Santa Catalina Range. Hikers would go for a hike and head for this stream for picnics, outings with kids, girlfriends or family. One night after the fires a wall of water 15 feet high and 50 feet across washed and scoured out this canyon tossing aside boulder the size of my living room. The next day this spot was gone and I haven’t been back since.


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WESTERN WILDFIRE RECOVERY: In New Mexico, the Santa Clara Pueblo is seeking volunteers to fill sandbags for fear the American Indian village of 3,100 will be washed away by runoff from mountainsides left denuded by a blaze last year. Read more about Western wildfire recovery likely to take years

UPDATE: Two cousins who pleaded guilty to starting the largest wildfire in Arizona history were sentenced Wednesday to 48 hours in jail and 200 hours of community service. Their still smoldering campfire sparked the Wallow Fire, which ultimately consumed 32 homes, four businesses and more than 30 barns and other buildings during the six weeks it burned out of control in the Apache National Forest last summer.

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