Wednesday, June 08, 2011

As Arizona Wildfires Burn, Saguaro National Park Shuts Its Trails; Pima County Also Closes Trails in Tucson and Southern Arizona

One of the ecological gems and major tourist attractions of southern Arizona, the Saguaro National Park on the east side of Tucson, is almost entirely closing to the public at noon tomorrow because of the extremely high danger of fire.

The park closing -- which includes all trails and washes -- is described as indefinite, until extreme fire hazard conditions lift. For the time being, the park's eight-mile-long scenic loop drive, the visitor center and a small nearby picnic area will remain open, however.

This afternoon, Pima County also closed all of its trails in the Tucson area, also indefinitely. Here's the county notice, which does not state whether the closings will begin at noon, like the Park Service closings, or early in the morning.

Basically, though, hiking and horse trails and related public recreation sites in Tucson and vicinity are now closed till the start of the monsoon season, which won't occur till July. Tucson is one of the leading centers in the country for mountain and trail biking, and that also will be sharply curtailed.

[Meanwhile, as wildfires rage elsewhere in the state, the media seem to be focusing entirely on a huge fire in mostly wilderness areas in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest 250 miles northeast of Tucson (and about the same distance east of Phoenix.)

[And that focus seems to be mostly on structures -- that is, the relatively few homes and cabins in the affected area around the town of Alpine and the people who live there, where evacuations are continuing.

[Myself, I think we've probably had enough stories along these lines now. We know folks become unhappy when a fire approaches their homes, and we've seen those wildfire photos a million times from many different places. Frankly, they all look alike, as dramatic as those flames and smoke plumes are.

[Wouldn't it be better to focus a bit more on the serious environmental disaster at hand, as hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine wilderness and back-country recreational areas are being rendered unusable -- for years if not a decade or more? Or maybe a little attention to the astonishing firefighting response, with thousands of firefighters toiling day and night in extreme heat and danger, and the rapidly mounting costs of all that? Or how about the fundamental reasons for such fires. Especially vis a vis the fires and fire hazards in the Sonoran Desert in the southern part of Arizona, it's probably time that reporters learned what buffel grass is and why it's an invasive fire-menace to the desert ecosystems. That's where this story goes from here, folks.]

Anyway, the biggest fire currently burning is the so-called Wallow fire in a wilderness area about 250 miles east of Phoenix, in Apache County, near the New Mexico border. That one is the second-worst in state history, and so far has burned 389,000 acres. It remains zero-percent contained, as of mid-afternoon today Arizona time.

There is another big one, called the Murphy fire, in rugged desert terrain between two towns, Arivaca and Tubac, near the Mexican border south of Tucson. Lots of people do live in that area, but so far evacuations haven't been called for. (And the media are all focused on the massive fire in the wilderness 250 miles east of Phoenix, meanwhile). Another big fire, called the Horseshoe fire, is burning farther east, in the Chiricahua Mountains that rise out of dry desert grasslands east of the old cowboy town of Tombstone. The latter two fires are in sections of the Coronado National Forest.

Meanwhile, back in Tucson, the Saguaro National Park closings come as the vast areas of Coronado National Forest, also in southern Arizona, also are closed because of the various fires and the extreme fire hazard conditions in areas that are not burning. In the various Coronado park districts, only the highway to the village of Summerhaven at the summit of 9,300-foot Mt. Lemmon overlooking Tucson remains open, and only during the day. That road has to be kept open because several hundred people live in the village.

Here's the National Park Service bulletin on the closing.

The local paper in Tucson, which I call the Daily Stupid (current main headline on Web site, and I am not making this up: "Is Tucson the Best Town Ever?") has run lots of dramatic photos of people gazing with alarm at smoke in the affected areas, but has been short on maps and useful reporting on the fires and their local ramifications. As the local paper had it, only the high mountain trails of Saguaro National Park East will be closed. (There is another, lesser section of the national park on the west side of Tucson. It's not covered by the closings.)

But in fact, all of the trails are being shut down, including the numerous horse and hiking trails and washes at lower levels. Besides tourists (and the Germans, for some reason, love the heat of southern Arizona this time of the year) local residents (like me) use these trails and washes, as do the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch and some other smaller neighborhood trail-riding operations.

The rangers tell us here (and would tell any local reporter who found the initiative to simply inquire) that because so much of the regional firefighting force is deployed in the big fires elsewhere, and because of staff cutbacks in the park service, keeping the horse and hiking trails open could be dangerous.

The temperatures in Tucson are in the high 90s, after about a week of temperatures over 100. Relative humidity remains around five percent. It's windy today, and has been breezy or windy for a week. It hasn't really rained in this part of Arizona since last Thanksgiving, and the monsoon season, when southern Arizona gets most of its annual rainfall, is a month away at best. These are extreme fire-hazard conditions.

So prudence prevails. A carelessly tossed cigarette or any kind of flame can ignite a major conflagration in these conditions.

It's probably futile to point out, but nevertheless of interest, that experienced people on horseback can be reliable observers who see more of the landscape from a horse -- which is why cities like New York have mounted cops. Also, the kind of horsepeople and hikers who are on these trails at this time of the year tend to be experienced in parksmanship, and hence could be used by the park service as an extra set of eyes.

But emergency conditions are at hand, and nuances can come later.


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