Buckhorn controlled burn this weekend
Forest Managers Light Fires Now to Prevent Big Blazes Later
With fire season around the corner, crews in the Coronado National Forest completed their final planned controlled burn of the spring in late April.
The Buckhorn Prescribed Burn reduced dry fuels on 4,600 acres of Redington Pass, with crews working the area much of last week.
“Fire does have a role in natural landscapes," said Coronado National Forest Spokesperson Heidi Schewel. "It is a natural change agent and we’re trying to use it to do what it normally would do here.”
During the last 20 years, the U.S. Forest Service has reintroduced controlled fire to federal land, using it to remove dried out vegetation that was kindling for wildfires.
Park officials meticulously plan each burn, making sure they know exactly what they want to do, and what is needed to do it.
“It’s not just run out there and light a fire," said Schewel. "It’s plan for it. Do analysis. Get your ducks in a row and when the time comes that you have planned to do this burn, if you’re in prescription and things are working right, then you can do it.”
A controlled burn near Redington Pass in the Coronado National Forest.Firefighters watch as fire burns dried vegetation on the ground.A controlled burn near Redington Pass in the Coronado National Forest.A firefighter uses a drip torch to burn dry grasses in Reddington Pass.A controlled burn near Redington Pass in the Coronado National Forest.A small cactus still has its flowers despite the controlled burn passing around it.A controlled burn near Redington Pass in the Coronado National Forest.“Fire does have a role in natural landscapes.A controlled burn near Redington Pass in the Coronado National Forest.Firefighters communicate on radios as they black-line the area that will be burnt.A controlled burn near Redington Pass in the Coronado National Forest. Minutes after being lit, much of the fire has burnt itself out, though some areas continue to smolder.A controlled burn near Redington Pass in the Coronado National Forest.Firefighters watch as fire burns dried vegetation on the ground.
On the first day of the burn, Engine 552 from the Santa Catalina Ranger District and the Globe Interagency Hot Shot Crew worked along San Pedro Road, which was the fires northern-most boundary.
Their job was to char an outline of the area to be burned in the next step.
“The technique that we use is called black-lining," said Leo Holly, the burn boss trainee on the Buckhorn Prescribed Burn. "It helps us meet our objectives a lot safer, and if we have to use aviation resources to fill in the middle, it’s going to secure our lines that much better.”
Some members of the crew walk through the area using hand tools to knock any upright vegetation onto the ground. From there, other crewmembers use drip torches to light the fuels.
The torches are filled with a mixture of gasoline and diesel. The fuel drips across a flame, catching fire before it dropping to the ground in the desired spot.
After that, the small spurts of flame grow into flames that can get as tall as the firefighters.
The process is laborious but relatively cheap. The Buckhorn Prescribed Burn cost about $20 an acre.
In 2014, the federal government spent about $420 an acre suppressing wildfire.
After a few minutes, the flames die down to smoldering embers. The area is mostly charred black and brown, but there are still hints of green.
The vegetation that could catch fire quickly if there was a lightning strike or a lit cigarette tossed out a window is gone, turned into fertilizer for the next generation of plants.
Some plants even still have their flowers.
“We’re getting really good fire effects," said Burn Boss Trainee Holly. "It should come back real nice during the monsoons when the rains come in."
But the time before monsoons hit the area that can be most concerning for fire season and that time starts now.
“May tends to be when we ramp up our fire season here in southeastern Arizona,” said Lee Carlaw, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tucson. “The days start getting longer. Sun angle gets very high, and we get hot and very dry.”
Carlaw said this spring has been unusually wet. The National Weather Service said this year is the first time Tucson has seen rain on May 2, 3, and 4 in recorded history.
While the recent rain storms can help delay the start of what could be an intense fire season, they are no substitute for snowpack in the mountains.
“Snow melt is a big thing we look for on top of our mountains because that provides a consistent supply as we start to melt the snow during the spring as things warm up,” Carlaw said.
Back at the Buckhorn Prescribed Burn, the second day saw the completion of the outlining.
The interior portion was then lit by dropping special spheres filled with potassium permanganate and glycol, two chemicals that react when mixed and start a fire.
The air-dropped fires are often sparked at the top of hills, allowing the burn to work its way slowly down and preserve any riparian areas.
The Buckhorn Prescribed Burn finished on May 1.
With the final prescribed burn of the season in Coronado National Forest completed, crews will now be on the ready, because the next fire they are called out on may not be one that was planned like the Buckhorn Prescribed Burn.