Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Picket Fire at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Part 2

Sunday, May 8, 4:00 pm. The Picket Fire is 200 acres in size and growing fast.  

Arboretum staff members on site were now reduced to a core half dozen, paired off into three groups for safety. Mark Siegwarth was quarterbacking staff efforts and interfacing with Morgan, the Incident Commander (IC). Lynnea Spencer was in the Gift Shop monitoring the base station radio and handling telephone calls. Chris Spencer, now donning a bright yellow, official “Nomex” fire shirt, teamed up with Steve Smith to interface directly with fire fighters on the grounds.  Steve Carter and Jeff Payne double-checked that the dozens of widely dispersed irrigation valves around the grounds were shut off so that fire fighters would have maximum water availability to re-fill their trucks and fully charge their hoses.

While most fires are managed to protect fire fighter and public safety and to minimize damage to property and structures, the U.S. Forest Service was also aware of the uniqueness and importance of the Arboretum’s trees and other plants. Forest Service briefings for fire fighters included specific instructions to protect the Arboretum’s plant collections as an integral third leg of the top most important priorities.  “Buildings can be rebuilt,” Mark Siegwarth explained to one of the television news crews that descended upon the Arboretum on Sunday, “but all of the plants we planted in 1926, 1928, 1930 -- we can’t replace those.”

The anxiety shared by Mark and Lynnea was growing as they watched the distant flames above the High Trail appear to surge closer the south side of Queen Creek. “I can see the fire through the trees!” Lynnea exclaimed, looking through the Gift Shop window. What she couldn't see was that a twenty-foot embankment and a paltry thirty feet of rocky creek bottom was all that separated the approaching fire from a dozen of the oldest and largest trees in the Arboretum. Fire Management Officer Quentin Johnson would later say that there was a 95% chance of ignition if one of the thousands of floating embers made its way into the bone dry mixture of tamarisk and beefwood needles on the “collection side” of the creek.  

With things looking increasingly grim, Mark and Lynnea ran the short distance to the Smith Building and yanked cords, wires, and connectors from the two computers that contained our plant records database and the electronic versions of our historical images and documents. Should the worst case scenario occur – and it was looking like that might happen -- it would be a double tragedy to lose both our plant collection and the historical documentation and data that backs it up. As long as they moved quickly, Mark felt confident that they could make at least one trip safely. Between them, they grabbed the two computers, accession books, computer disks and whatever else their cumulative adrenalin and strength would allow them to carry. In less than ten minutes, they had lugged everything back to the Visitor Center on foot and loaded it all into a vehicle in the main parking lot. Computers in the administration office were also removed, ready to be driven off site. 

Morgan was keenly watching the potentially explosive scene develop above the High Trail from his command post in the overflow parking lot. Behind him, more engines and crews were still coming in the front gate. The larger body of the fire was spreading out and moving up the north-faces of Pancho Plateau and Picket Post Mountain, but his immediate attention was fixed on the fully engulfed vegetation burning at the doorstep of the Arboretum’s plant collections, just 200 yards away from where he was standing.  

It was nearly 6:00 pm now and another air tanker that Morgan had wisely ordered earlier was just minutes away. He also requested that two more be on standby, each ready to be loaded with fire retardant slurry and airborne within minutes of receiving the order. At full capacity, each of these planes can carry nearly ten tons of the thick pink liquid in their bellies.

Thick gray and black smoke continued to belch in irregular pulses as the fire  consumed one creosote bush and then another on the slope above the High Trail. Rounded plumes of smoke were pushed upstream by the wind, making the fire appear to be racing up the canyon. Morgan’s view from the parking lot was partially cut-off by the tall trees in the Demonstration Garden, so the high volume of smoke rising above the trees was all he had to go on in deciding his next move. “It was so hot and rolling,” Chris told me later, “that it must have looked to him like all of Queen Creek was on fire.”  

That was, in fact, the scenario that was now running through Morgan’s mind.  He ran the short distance to the Visitor Center and told Mark to radio Chris and Steve immediately. “Get them out now,” he told him. “It’s running again and we can’t vouch for their safety.” Mark quickly relayed the message to Chris and Steve who jumped into their golf cart, thinking, like the rest of us, that the fire had already made the transition into the crowns of our cultivated trees.

“Ember wash” is the term used by wild land firefighters to describe the burning embers that are the byproducts of an approaching fire, often preceding the fire’s leading edge by a wide margin.  They are either propelled by the prevailing wind, by convection from the fire itself, or a combination of both. These floating castoffs of incomplete combustion were launching from the west end of the high trail like the resultant splatter of water dropped into a pan of hot oil. Each ember was a lit match, floating dumbly but maliciously towards new fuels to colonize.

Morgan was able to confirm from the air that the fire had not spread as far up the canyon as he had feared, so he asked Chris to drive Johnny, one of the team leaders, onto the grounds with the golf cart to familiarize him  with trails, roads, water sources, and access points for fire vehicles. Once they had passed Mr. Big, they saw through the thinner patches of smoke that the fire had indeed moved up the canyon, but had paused for the moment, smoldering at the base of thirty-foot-tall rock face near the top of the ridge.

The fiercest, most threatening part of the fire was quickly consuming dense fuels on the hilltop just above the High Trial.  When Chris and Johnny arrived,  intense, creosote-fed flames generated volumes of expanding smoke and spit out embers that drifted into the higher branches of the red gum eucalyptus trees, ready to ignite one of the resinous leaves above their heads or free fall into the tinder dry leaf litter at their feet. Even worse, actual flame tips appeared to be licking the arching branches of the red gums that extended over Queen Creek, but it was impossible to tell for sure through the smoke. Johnny radioed Morgan and requested an immediate water drop.

A helicopter quickly responded with a full Bambi bucket freshly dipped from Ayer Lake. The pilot hovered over the hotspot, made a few brief adjustments to his position as he took aim, and then let loose with a perfectly placed water drop that knocked down the flames as if an airtight lid had been thrown over the fire. “It couldn’t have done it any better,” Chris said. The force of the water instantaneously transformed leaping flames in a harmless, pewter-colored mixture of steam and suspended ash that floated upstream with the wind. 

This direct hit on the most worrisome part of the fire proved to be as much of a psychological victory as it was a show of firefighting prowess. After seeing the flames snuffed out directly in front of them, Chris leaned over to Johnny and said, “We have a chance now.” Several successive water drops followed as the fire briefly flared, but the clear and present danger was over. In a conversation a few days later, both Chris and Morgan concurred that the suppression of this hot spot was a major turning point in the fight to save the Arboretum.

With clouds of smoky steam still roiling from the dowsed hotspot, the third slurry bomber that Morgan had ordered rumbled directly over Chris and Johnny’s heads as it made its first reconnaissance pass over Silver King Wash. Not wanting to be prettied in pink, they returned to the safety of the upper parking lot; Morgan verified that all the other firefighters and BTA staff were clear of the slurry’s intended path. At 6:18, the twin engine bomber came in low from the east, barely above the trees, and dropped its load from the Desert Legume Garden to the Outback Bridge and everything in between. With the Eucalyptus trees along the creek thoroughly covered in retardant, firefighters could now use Silver King Wash as a wide, safe corridor for a direct attack from the grounds if needed.

The southward encroachment of the fire had been slowed, and the Arboretum was much safer than it was thirty minutes ago, but the bulk of the fire to the south and west was still far from contained. The fire had come this far and this fast by using the spring season’s left-over and thoroughly-dry red brome grass as a fuse to bridge the gaps from plant to plant. With the strong south and southwest winds, fire quickly incinerated brittlebush and then moved on to ignite the woodier and hotter burning sub-shrubs like flat-top buckwheat, turpentine brush, snakeweed, and fairy duster, leaving nothing but dinner-plate size circles of white ash surrounded by a larger donut of charred black. The somewhat less flammable but more vulnerable pincushion cacti and, to a lesser extent, hedgehogs, were overwhelmed, victims of collateral damage.

As evening approached, the wind had diminished and flames were starting to lie down. The two helicopters continued dowsing hot spots until darkness grounded them. Firefighters worked through the night in Queen and Arnette canyons, but because of the treacherously steep south-facing slope of Picket Post Mountain, they allowed the fire to burn itself out when it ran into the base of the vertical rock bluffs that extend down from the summit. The fire burned up most of the western half of the north face of Pancho Plateau but never ran over the top.

The fire took a heavy toll on native vegetation. The boney, exposed frames of chollas were burned severely but the more densely growing prickly pears suffered less so, many showing signs of green life near the base.  Most barrel cacti were roasted a leathery-tan color but with a hopeful amount of insulated green tissue buried deep within the clefts of many of the ribs. Palo verdes look dead; mesquites and catclaws, because of their thicker bark, may have fared better. The only reliably fire-adapted plant in the Sonoran Desert is the jojoba; it was burned to various degrees of completeness but will re-sprout vigorously and reliably from the base in the coming year. Though the wind “fanned the flames” in the most literal sense, it also kept the fire moving so that it rarely lingered too long in any one area, hopefully sparing most of the larger saguaros.

By Monday morning at 8:00 am, the fire was considered 40% contained. The Arboretum remained closed until Tuesday as firefighters continued to establish and maintain control lines, deal with flare-ups, and begin the process of mopping-up. The fire was declared 100% contained early Tuesday with a total burned acreage of 1336 acres, 160 acres of which are Arboretum property.

While firefighters suppressed the last stages of the fire on Monday and Tuesday, Arboretum began using high pressure hoses and stiff brooms to scrub the surfaces that were unlucky enough to be rained down upon by thick globs of pink retardant from the three slurry drops. The iron oxide infused fire retardant was completely indiscriminant in where it landed: unprotected camera lenses, clothing, vehicles, asphalt, concrete, wood, hair, and bare skin were as splattered as the trees and plants for which it was intended. Without prompt removal, the residual pink droplets have the tenacity of those from a can of latex paint of the same color, often remaining visible for years. As a helpful side-effect, slurry is formulated as a fertilizer with added plant nutrients such as phosphorous, so that none of the “scrubbings” that washed away were wasted.

The fire was human caused, though the exact manner in which it began has yet to be determined.  The ignition point was several miles west of the Arboretum near a small, open area used for target shooting just off of Forest Road 231 near the Reymert Mine. It is littered with broken clay pigeons, shot gun shells, and other shell casings and is popular with shooting enthusiasts both locally and from the Phoenix area.  An investigation is ongoing.

A compliment of 90 firefighters in all capacities participated in battling the fire, and we thank each and every one of them with all of our hearts. 

Kim Stone

Image links:

Director's Epilogue
I hope from Kim Stone's retelling of the events you get a sense of what a harrowing ordeal the Picket Fire was for all of us at the Arboretum.  Although the firefighters had a plan to defend the Arboretum at the 20 yard line, it really did turn into a goal line stand and I cannot say enough about their professionalism and commitment to save the collection.  I also want to commend my staff, who not only performed heroically that day, but also over the last year. They cleared brush and debris from around the Arboretum and cut back the red brome that surely would have carried the fire into the Eucalyptus Forest if it had remained.

Kim's tale is how the small actions of many came together to great result.  In the next week or so, you will be receiving an appeal letter asking for your help.  Once again, the small actions of many can have a great effect for the Arboretum.  Although we have survived the worst freeze in memory in February and the Picket Fire consumed over a third of the Arboretum in May, (but not our collection), the Arboretum is now faced with a lack of water for its irrigation system.  To repair the water line may take over a month.  Until then, we are looking at other options to save the collection.  Although an early monsoon would help, it brings the added danger of lightning strikes and fire.  There is much to do and we could use your help. 

Of the lessons learned from the Picket Fire, three stand out.  First of all, our plant collection is the foundation of the Arboretum, irreplaceable and truly a treasure.  Secondly, being prepared is often the key to success, and finally, if we pull together, we can accomplish great things. 

Thank you for all your thoughts, concerns and support over the last year.

Mark Siegwarth
Executive Director   

Friday, June 3, 2011

Picket Fire at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Part 1

Sunday, May 8 was Mother’s Day, and over 500 visitors were either touring the Picket Post Mansion during the final day of the Open House, or just enjoying late spring in all its glory at the Arboretum. When the fire was first spotted, it was small -- as all fires are at the beginning-- and an unthreatening two miles west of the Arboretum. A visitor driving eastbound on Highway 60 reported the fire to Lynnea Spencer at the Gift Shop and Lynnea immediately called 911. Chris Spencer, who was running a van shuttle to transport visitors to and from Picket Post House, dropped off his passengers and drove westward on Highway 60 towards the fire to get a closer look and report back to Mark Siegwarth on the fire’s progression.  Soon after turning south onto Forest Road 231 (the road that links Highway 60 to Picket Post Trailhead), Forest Service engines and their attendant crews began to arrive, quickly catching and then passing Chris on the narrow dirt road.

When the engines pulled up to the scene, it was 12:30pm. The fire had been burning for about an hour and was four acres in size. The structural fire departments of Superior and Queen Valley were already at the site. The Forest Service had planned to fight the fire directly by anchoring and flanking it with water and hand tools, but, because of strong winds, the head of the fire was moving too quickly. They wanted to keep it south of FS 231 and the Picket Post Trailhead junction, but it was a “red flag day” with winds steady at 10mph, gusting to 30mph. These strong southwest winds caused the fire to “come flying across the road,” as Fire Management Officer Quentin Johnson from the Globe Ranger District put it, forcing the firefighters to pull back from their ridge.

This wild-land conflagration was now officially christened the “Picket Fire” by the U. S. Forest Service. Tom Morgan, from the Globe Ranger District, was appointed the Incident Commander (IC) to direct the tactical and logistical efforts in fighting the fire. Preferring to be called simply “Morgan,” we had no idea how much we would be relying on his skills and those of all of the other firefighters in the coming seven hours.

Several miles to the east, Mark Siegwarth was keeping tabs on the developing situation with a clear view of the fire from the promontory of Picket Post Mansion, as he and other staff and volunteers hosted the Open House.  Chris had just returned and reported that firefighters were on the scene and working the fire, and there did not appear to be any immediate danger to the Arboretum.  However, about a half hour later, Chris made another reconnaissance to the fire area and saw for himself what firefighters were now dealing with: The fire had increased to about 10 acres, more than doubling its size in 30 minutes, and was moving very close to Highway 60. Even more troubling, an eastward push of wind appeared to be driving the fire simultaneously towards the Arboretum. Chris raced back to the Arboretum to inform Mark and told him, “I think we have to do something. It’s coming our way.” At nearly the same instant, Superior police drove through the gate and gave Mark the same appraisal of the fire’s aggressive run towards our direction. With these two corroborating reports, Mark made the decision to evacuate the Arboretum. It was 1:30pm.

Staff reacted quickly by notifying all visitors throughout the grounds to immediately start walking towards their vehicles. The sense of urgency for everyone was palpable, reinforced by the increasingly visible smoke plume growing in the western sky. Picket Post Open House visitors either walked back to the parking lots via the Main Trail or were transported in our shuttle van. All of our trails and exhibits were systematically patrolled by BTA staff on foot or by golf carts and bicycles. Each staff member reported back to Mark Siegwarth by radio. The responses came in quickly. 

“Chihuahuan trail. Clear.”

“High Trail. Clear.”

“Picket Post House. Clear.”

“Main Trail. Clear.”

In a remarkable 35 minutes, all visitors were evacuated, leaving the main parking lot clear by 2:05pm and ready to receive the emergency and fire vehicles that were on their way as the fire spread eastward.

To many of the firefighters that began to arrive in the next half hour, the Arboretum was already a familiar place. In May of 2010, personnel from the Globe Ranger District spent two days assessing our fire readiness and helping us to develop a defensive, pre-attack fire plan. Together, we reduced fuel sources such as red brome grass on both sides of Queen Creek, and pruned trees along the creek that could carry fire across their canopies. We identified and improved fire barriers such as roads and trails, and created new barriers where they were needed.  Firefighters became familiar with our water sources, vehicle access points, trail systems, and our staff.  All this was done so that fire crews “could hit the ground running” if the unthinkable might ever come to pass. Now, just one year later, the Picket Fire was about to put the plan to the test.  

The fire had reached 15 acres by 1:30 and hit Highway 60 hard, crossing two wide asphalt lanes into the median. Firefighters had hoped to “burnout” areas in front of the fire to deny it fuel, but the gusty, erratic winds were moving the fire so quickly that they were forced into a more defensive posture of protecting motorists and structures along the highway, and people, collection plants and structures at the Arboretum. As firefighters began to pull back, Morgan, the IC, made the call to evacuate the Arboretum, not knowing that Mark had already given the order minutes earlier. Because of fire, smoke, poor visibility and to ensure firefighter and motorist safety, DPS and ADOT began the process of closing Highway 60. The road wouldn’t reopen again until five hours later.

With all visitors safely evacuated, Arboretum staff turned its efforts towards the five volunteers and staff members who lived in the residences on the west side of the Arboretum grounds and were directly in the path of the western flank of the approaching fire.  Propane and electric lines were disconnected from two recreational vehicles, one of which was safely towed into nearby Superior. The owners of the other motor home were away and couldn’t be reached. Their ignition keys couldn’t be found either, so Lacey Pacheco and volunteer Kate Griffith had no choice but to scoop up the dog and cat they found inside and take them home for the night. 

By 2:40, the fire had doubled in size again, reaching 30 acres as it continued to burn its way rapidly towards us.

Firefighters and equipment had begun to arrive in earnest after 3:00 and crews started to  burnout the fuels on the hillside that led from the shop and maintenance area up to the road that goes up and over water tank hill.  Steve Carter and his wife Ruth, along with their vehicles and pets, had now evacuated their residence (the house nearest the highway).  Arboretum and private vehicles were moved into the safety of the asphalt main parking lot, adding to the growing collection of emergency vehicles. The leading edge of the smoke plume could now be seen moving around the north side of water tank hill, aiming for a direct hit on Steve’s house and the front gate.

Fire crews had now completed their pullback  from the west and were maintaining a defensive position at the Arboretum. Morgan had a radio in one ear and cell phone in the other, barking orders to ground crews and maintaining radio contact with the approaching slurry bomber and helicopters he had ordered earlier. Chris Spencer, along with Steve Smith, acted as primary staff liaisons to the firefighters. They provided maps, and helped them to find water hydrants and negotiate the grounds with their vehicles and equipment. Chris and Steve used heavy equipment to cut a new fire break, at Morgan’s request, from the maintenance shop down to Queen Creek as an added fire barrier.

It was 3:25 and smoke was beginning to blow more heavily across the parking lot. “This,” Mark later described adroitly, “is when things began to get kind of hairy.”

The fire had already jumped Highway 60 to the north in numerous places, consuming a quarter mile of wooden guard rail posts as it moved precariously closer to us. Flames ignited the six inch plastic water line that carries irrigation water from our West well to the Ayer Lake, causing most of it to collapse, melt, and slowly burn for the next several days, leaving only a black “skid mark” on the ground to remind anyone that it ever existed.

Nearly horizontal flames shot across the back side of water tank hill and reached the west side of Steve’s house, briefly igniting old pine needles and eucalyptus leaves that had accumulated on the corrugated metal roof of his garage. That fire was quickly extinguished, as were the flames rising from plastic nursery containers, scraps of wood, and other combustibles that briefly caught fire around his house. 

From here, the wind-driven fire quickly sliced across the remaining 100 feet of distance to the west side of the main gate. It ran up the trunks of 20 feet tall date palms and ignited the fronds above. Equally valuable Mediterranean fan palms, large yuccas, agaves, and aloes, along with several shoestring acacias, beefwood trees, and other collection plants were severely blackened before the fire leaped across the highway to the north. With  collection plants still visibly on fire, a slurry bomber made its initial reconnaissance pass and then, about 3:35, dropped 2000 gallons of pink-red fire retardant (slurry) across the main parking lot, highway, and the south-facing slope to the north. With the consistency and color of Pepto Bismol, it hit its targeted plants, but also spattered asphalt, vehicles, and anything or anyone else along its path.  Because of this timely and accurate slurry drop, and quick work by firefighters, the plants at the front gate were the only accessioned collection plants that were lost or damaged during the fire. 

During this time, two helicopters were also actively flying the Picket Fire. They dipped their suspended  “Bambi” water buckets into Ayer Lake, and spent most of the afternoon crisscrossing the Arboretum, dousing hot spots with precise hits of 125 gallons of water. With the close proximity of Ayer Lake, roundtrips from water source to fire and back took pilots as little as five minutes. Guided by Morgan and other crew members on the ground, the quick turnaround time allowed the helicopters to hammer the fire hard with each release of their 1000-pound payloads of water.

Morgan called in another aerial tanker that dropped a second load of slurry further north to protect private residences that were located a quarter mile to the east. By 5:30, there were still hotspots, but the fire had slowed on the north side of the highway and the structures were no longer threatened. 

The more worrisome fire was now to the southwest, moving across the slopes of the Queen and Arnett Creek drainages. One particularly aggressive prong of the fire was racing unchecked up the hillside behind the far western portion of the High Trail. It topped out and ignited a thick stand of creosote bush, generating tall, crackling flames and high volumes of smoke.  Mark and Lynnea could see these flames from the Visitor Center, but they couldn’t accurately gauge the distance because of the many trees that partially blocked their view. Neither of them could rule out the possibility that the fire may have already jumped Queen Creek -- and moved into the Eucalyptus forest.

Kim Stone