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Tucson, Arizona Sunday, 5 October 2003
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How Rincons and Catalinas went their own ways in wildfire management

Let it burn; put it out

The Helen's II fire in the Rincons

Star file photo The Helen's II fire in the Rincons, foreground, and the Aspen Fire in the Catalinas, background, filled Tucson's sky with smoke this summer.

Cal Farris doing his dissertation on Rincons fire history

David Sanders/Staff
Cal Farris, Ph.D. student at the UA tree-ring lab, is doing his dissertation on Rincons fire history.

Tucson's sister mountain chains have had starkly different policies

By Mitch Tobin

The Rincon and Santa Catalina mountains are practically joined at the hip, but their relationship with fire has become a study in contrasts.

For thousands of years, lightning-sparked fires crept across both ranges in a similar way, consuming fuel on the forest floor once or twice a decade.

But in the past century, as the Catalinas were developed and the Rincons stayed primitive, federal officials were forced to handle fire quite differently in the neighboring mountains.

The Forest Service fought fires more aggressively in the Catalinas to protect cabins and summer camps. Mount Lemmon Highway also improved access for firefighters.

In the more remote Rincons - where there's just a ranger station at the top and no road to get there - Saguaro National Park let some fires burn and set others to replicate the natural fire cycle. Were it not for Hurricane Marty's dousing last month, the park would have ignited 550 acres atop the mountains tomorrow, dropping flaming "pingpongs" from a helicopter.

To many scientists and fire managers, the pair of "sky islands" that serve as Tucson's backdrop illustrate the cruel irony of 20th century fire policy: the mountains where development forced officials to suppress virtually all fires - the Catalinas - became the site of a catastrophe in June because so much fuel had accumulated.

Now, with 184 square miles in the Catalinas scorched by three major wildfires in two years, many experts see an opportunity to start managing that range more like the Rincons, where Saguaro's use of fire is hailed as a national model.

"We have a golden opportunity to get things back to the native state," said Dean McAlister, fire management officer for the Coronado National Forest. "Perhaps next year - assuming conditions are appropriate to let a ground fire burn - we'll let it burn. In the past, our approach was 'suppress everything without asking questions.' "

But that transition, now being written into policy, may be tough on Mount Lemmon and Mount Graham, near Safford, where there are still telescopes and hundreds of cabins. And many people remain suspicious of prescribed burns since they sometimes get out of control and create bothersome smoke.

Cal Farris works in a miniature forest of samples taken from burned trees in the Rincon Mountains

Photos by:
David Sanders/Staff
Cal Farris works in a miniature forest of samples taken from burned trees in the Rincon Mountains.

Pine cutting from the Rincon Mountains

Darker wood in this pine cutting from the Rincon Mountains is evidence of fires in the past. This tree endured nine forest fires since 1925.

Both ranges on fire

Apparently by coincidence, major wildfires began in both mountain ranges on the same day this summer. On June 17, lightning started the Helen's II Fire in the Rincons, which went on to char 3,498 acres. In the Catalinas, the human-caused Aspen Fire burned 84,750 acres and destroyed 335 buildings.

By historic standards, it wasn't unusual for both ranges to be on fire simultaneously.

On June 19, 1879, the Arizona Weekly Star reported - with 19th century spelling and syntax - that "the southeastern slope of the Santa Catarina and the west side of the Rincone mountains have been ablaze for four days. No doubt of both these fires are caused by negligence on part of prospectors," said a story sandwiched between accounts of Apache raids and mining in Tombstone.

At first blush, the vastly different outcomes of the Aspen and Helen's II fires would seem to prove the Rincons have been managed better. And Saguaro officials do believe that previous prescribed burns helped keep Helen's II in check.

"When the fire got to the areas we burned last year, it just went right to the ground and they could catch it, no problem," said Kathy Schon, a fire ecologist at the park. "It was great to see. It gives such validation to what we're doing."

But scientists and firefighters caution that the two blazes had more differences than similarities, even though they began just 15 miles apart.

Because a thunderstorm started Helen's II, the area probably had more humidity, maybe even some rain, to slow it down. It began in a mid-elevation woodland and on north-facing slopes, which are shadier and less prone to burn.

The Aspen Fire, by contrast, began higher up, in heavy timber, on a hot and dry south-facing slope. A southwest wind that blew for days pushed the Aspen Fire right uphill into Summerhaven; the breeze fought against Helen's II's march toward the top of the Rincons.

If the Aspen Fire hadn't been burning, park officials say they might have let Helen's II do its thing, though concerns about habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl may have caused them to step in.

Development diverges

Letting fires burn - known as "wildland fire use" - has been more common in the Rincons because the mountaintop has no private property at risk. Unlike nearly all the other sky islands in Southern Arizona, the Rincons have no road snaking upward.

The only vulnerable structures are at Manning Camp, where annual visitors are measured by the dozen. To reach the rustic log cabin, you need to backpack at least 12 miles one way and climb nearly a mile.

The lack of visitors and infrastructure in the Rincons has also made it harder to detect fires and put them out, with crews sometimes forced to take a helicopter to the fire line. But fewer visitors also means fewer fires. Between 1937 and 1995, the park averaged eight fires per year, with 90 percent caused by lightning, according to a 1999 U.S. Geological Survey report.

By contrast, vehicles make a half-million trips up Mount Lemmon annually. The larger Santa Catalina Ranger District, which includes lower-elevation areas in the Rincons, averaged 66 fires a year from 1986 to 1999, with 54 percent human-caused.

Two ranges, two agencies

The Rincons and Catalinas are managed by two separate federal agencies, but that may not have made a big difference.

The Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, adheres to a "multiple use" philosophy that tries to balance humans' demands with nature's. The National Park Service, part of the Interior Department, is more oriented toward preservation and restoring natural pro-cesses.

"They have different missions because they have different landscapes," said Tom Swetnam, director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, which has analyzed hundreds of fire-scarred trees in both ranges, some dating to the 1300s.

"The Park Service typically has landscapes that are more remote and undeveloped, so in many cases they can take a more naturalistic approach because the risks aren't as high."

The two agencies' experiences elsewhere provide counter-examples. Some parks have extensive inholdings of private property, and many do little prescribed burning. This summer, wildfires forced Glacier National Park in Montana to evacuate hundreds of people.

At the same time, New Mexico's Gila National Forest let 158,954 acres burn in 2003, accounting for 98 percent of the wildland fire use in the Southwest. The Coronado also did a 45,000-acre burn in the Peloncillo Mountains this summer, along the New Mexico border, and in 2001 it set a 4,300-acre fire near Redington Pass, just east of Tucson.

"I think we're moving in a positive direction with the Forest Service. I just hope it's quickly enough," said David Hodges, executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, a Tucson environmental group that gave Saguaro an award for its fire program. "It's all about funding, funding, funding."

Prescribed burns tend to be much cheaper than mechanical thinning, although crews often cut brush and trees before igniting to prevent a blowup, and thinning is often followed by burning. The burn planned for Saguaro this week would have cost about $235 per acre; thinning around Summerhaven has cost $500 to $750 an acre. The big burn in the Peloncillos cost a mere $2.50 an acre.

Fires offer opportunity

Another reason it's been easier to use fire as a tool at Saguaro is that two major fires in 1943 and 1954 reduced fuel in the Rincons, said Cal Farris, a Ph.D. student in the UA's tree-ring lab whose dissertation is on the Rincons' fire history.

"In some areas, the initial wildfires created an environment where the Park Service could follow up and maintain those areas as open by burning them," he said.

Now, many experts see the recent Aspen and Bullock fires in the Catalinas serving a similar function since they consumed so many of the pine needles and small trees that made the Coronado nervous about using fire.

Forest officials, for instance, have long wanted to do a burn near Romero Pass to restore bighorn sheep habitat, "but our concern was that area is down-slope from Summerhaven. If we misjudged our fuel conditions and the fire took off, it would end up in Summerhaven," said McAlister, the Coronado fire management officer.

The Coronado is now amending its forest plan so managers can let more fires burn naturally. Previously, that policy only applied in wilderness areas. The new rules are most likely to affect lower-elevation ranges in Southeast Arizona, such as the Galiuro, Winchester, Dragoon and Santa Teresa mountains, McAlister said.

While scientists and firefighters agree that Southern Arizona needs to fight fire with fire, land managers will need to overcome some public resistance stemming from past fiascos with prescribed burns.

In 2000, a burn near Los Alamos, N.M., got out of control and blackened 43,000 acres and destroyed more than 220 structures. Just two weeks ago, unexpected winds turned a 600-acre burn in Utah's Uinta National Forest into a 3,200-acre wildfire that sent smoke pouring into Salt Lake City.

Tree-ring researcher Farris, a former wildland firefighter, recalls directing traffic during a prescribed burn and getting lots of heat from residents who didn't understand how burning a forest could protect it.

"I've never gotten more verbal abuse in my life. I couldn't wait to go back and cut line," he said.

"A lot of people don't trust big government, no matter what it does," said Bob Zimmerman, chairman of the Mount Lemmon Fire District. "But, in my opinion, we're partners in the future. If we can't work together we're all sunk."

"It's absolutely essential we put more fire into the system," he said, but the Forest Service must also thin more trees right around Summerhaven.

Saguaro National Park officials say their burning has generated virtually no complaints because smoke tends to descend into thinly populated areas near Vail and Benson.

But even for the wild Rincons, things may be changing, as Tucson continues to grow toward the southeast and more people make their home at the base of the mountain range.

"As we keep building up around the park, smoke will become a big issue," said Chuck Scott, Saguaro's fire management officer. "A lot of this will depend on how the population tolerates smoke."

* Contact reporter Mitch Tobin at 573-4185 or

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