Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon - Updated One Last Time

Check out this Burn Severity map that USFS released recently. It shows exactly where the high intensity burns are. (A higher resolution map of the same thing can be accessed here. Takes a moment to load but well worth it).

June 9 Update - from Ted Grussing, Sedona.

"I've been over West Fork observing the past several days and trying out different shoot from positions and altitudes to find those that work the best.

West Fork branches out into multiple arms as it nears the top of the canyon and I think it is in this area that the USFS was getting the back burns going. They did a terrific job and even though you can see where the fire was on the ground, for the most part the trees are intact.

The northern most branch of West Fork is the first image and you can see the clearing, pond and then a little run of water that begins its way down the canyon. For the most part this branch of West Fork is intact ... you can see a few hotspots smoldering on the plateau and further down canyon. Above and to the right of the image you can see where the canyon is beginning and then drops off to the right before it turns left and goes down canyon. The second photo was shot from just above the canyon where it really starts dropping off and turning to the left. Above the plateau on the right side of the image is Wilson Mountain and on the horizon on the left the loaf like mountain is Mormon Mountain.

In the second photo you can see where the canyon is coming in from the left where I shot the first photo and the southern branch of the canyon coming toward you. As you look down canyon you can see a few hotspots and the smoke in the canyon. All in all it is looking pretty good. Again you can see Mormon Mountain on the horizon just to the right of center.

The third shot is more or less just an example shot of how territory not directly in the fire area has been affected. The upper reaches of Sycamore Canyon walls have a very dark grey appearance as though they had been burned ... but they haven't been. A thick layer of ash from the Slide fire has simply drifted the few miles to the NW and precipitated out and the vegetation is actually in very good shape. The upper reaches of Sycamore Canyon and West Fork are actually very close to each other."  Ted

June 7 Update - from Ted Grussing, Sedona.

"The temporary fire restrictions over the Slide Fire area were lifted yesterday late afternoon; this morning I went up there to get some more images of the burn area from a lower altitude and tomorrow morning I'll be doing the same. 

The first image is a shot from about two thirds of the way up the West Fork Canyon looking down towards the juncture with Oak Creek Canyon. The east wall of Oak Creek Canyon runs across the top of the image. The view in this photo is to the east. The creek in West Fork wends its way from near bottom center to the top. The entire length of the canyon around the creek appears to be in very good shape and is a lush green, but many of the canyon walls did not fare as well. On the plateau either side of West Fork you can see the areas which had high intensity fires; the first quarter mile or so of West Fork appears to be in pretty good shape too and the area behind me is in quite good shape going to the top of West Fork. I took nearly a thousand photos yesterday and today and more tomorrow. 

The next photo was shot from approximately over the switchbacks where SR 89A comes up out of Oak Creek Canyon looking towards the SSE. Oak Creek Canyon is in the center of the shot. West Fork enters  from the bottom right of the image and as you can see the first part of West Fork is in pretty good shape; the fire appears to have gotten into West Fork from the top where it came up from the West Wall of Oak Creek Canyon, ran across the top of the plateau and dropped down into West Fork. From Slide Rock State Park going north most of the way to West Fork the West wall of Oak Creek Canyon was completely burned out. 

Of note, Oak Creek Canyon is a beautiful canyon eroded by the flow of water on top of a fault line. The planet is ever changing, seldom in ways we want ... we get used to the status quo and then we have to adopt again. Personally I have no idea why the USFS permits any campfires in the National Forests ... with propane stoves readily available, food can be cooked easily, safely and efficiently with minimal danger of starting a forest fire. This fire was human caused and possibly a camp fire that got away ... fire restrictions were in place at the time this fire was started. A total ban of camp fires would cause little inconvenience compared to the cost of the one that got away. You have all the ambiance you need just being out in the forest ... my two cents worth.


Original Post by Wayne Ranney

Mosaic burn on the rim of Oak Creek Canyon. Courtesy of USFS.
Many friends from across the country have been asking about the Slide Fire south of Flagstaff. The fire made headlines in the national news as it raced north out of the canyon, seemingly while making a beeline toward Flagstaff. I was traveling at the time on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon and smelled smoke on Thursday morning while in Havasu Creek. I immediately thought of Flagstaff.

The fire is mostly under control now and the first detailed images of the burn area are beginning to trickle out. For the most part, the fire left a mosaic of burn intensities. There are great pictures here of the variation in burns within the canyon and on the rim. You will see a set of switchbacks completely engulfed in high intensity burn out - that is the AB Young Trail. There are also some severe burns on the western slopes of the canyon walls. But it is not a complete path of destruction.

The first raced up the trend of the AB Young Trail. This was not timbered land but had manzanita and scrub oak - it likely burned previously. Courtesy of USFS.
Oak Creek Canyon will never be the same. I have been waiting for this day for about 15 years now. I drive the canyon often and would look up at the drying (and dying) trees and know that one day these slopes would burn. It looks however, as if we were spared a complete disaster. Of course, the monsoon is on its way and flooding and debris flows will further alter the landscape. It will be instructive and fun to watch the changes.

UPDATE - June 3

More commentary and photos from Ted Grussing. I have edited slightly for continuity and ease of understanding. The photos are excellent!

"This photo shows Oak Creek Canyon just below Slide Rock State Park and you can see where the fire went up the west side of the canyon most of the way up to West Fork where the smoke is heavier. Going up Oak Creek Canyon on the right side you can see the switch backs where SR 89A comes up out of the canyon. Following the smoke to the left going in to West Fork the canyon narrows dramatically and the canyons are deep and twisty (spell check says that is a word). On the lower left reaches of this photograph, up and over the canyon wall on the left side (West) is Long Canyon. On the right side above the switch backs a little way is Forest Highlands and other populated areas."

"This one is a look back to West Fork and Oak Creek Canyon from the upper reaches of Sycamore Canyon . You are looking ESE. The dense smoke is filling the various nooks and crannies of West Fork ... please note the generally beautiful condition of the forest on the plateau. For further reference above right center is Wilson Mountain, Thunder Mountain, West Sedona and the airport Think I see Bell Rock and the Village of Oak Creek too."

"And this one is a shot down into West Fork near the entrance from Oak Creek Canyon. This will give you an idea as to how incredibly rugged the terrain is. You should also be pleased to see so many trees still looking good and so little damage. During the fire this canyon was dense smoke from the floor to more than fifteen thousand feet ... visibility probably less than fifty feet."

All photos were shot Monday June 2, 2014. 

"Since the Slide fire started there have been so many different theories as to what went right and what went wrong and the USFS could have done this, should have done that and well you get the picture. So I thought this would be a good time to put out the real story. I have been talking with my friend Brian Steinhardt who is the Zone Fire Manager, Red Rock and Verde Ranger Districts of the Coconino and Prescott National Forests. And much of what follows is in his words and should clarify most questions that you have about the fire and the response to it. I am providing the photos to illustrate what he is saying; it is one thing to say narrow steep canyons and another to see them ... so the rest of this missive is a combination of word and image to show you the what, why and how.

Ted: "I have repeatedly heard that once the fire was reported first responders did not effectively engage the fire while still small. Also that aerial tankers were available and did not come in. To be effective, fire retardants and water have to be dropped low altitude ... picture a DC-10 tanker flying up Oak Creek Canyon a hundred feet off the deck with canyon walls more than a thousand feet above them ... in zero visibility or up in West Fork."

Brian: "I was the third or fourth resource on scene and I can tell you that there was no way to make an attack on the fire immediately.  The fire was firmly established on the west side of the creek with the only access being down the cliff-like slope between Slide Rock and Halfway picnic area.  To make an attack through that, having to cross the creek, we would have hurt someone.  Furthermore, within 15 minutes it had jumped the creek and was bumping the road which means had we sent someone in that direction, we likely would have killed them.  Access from the south through Slide Rock was not feasible as the flaming front was very active moving to the south and engines could not get there..... people would have been on foot with no way to escape the fire if it had made a major run.   I accessed the fire from the north through Garland's property and at that time it was easily 40-50 acres and running up the slope through the chaparral with lateral movement up canyon towards Garland's.  It burned through the raspberry bushes adjacent to the creek as it worked its way towards Garlands....indicative of a hot fire as it barely slowed coming through.

Due to the narrowness of the canyon and the high winds, air tankers were not feasible in the attack.  There is not enough room to maneuver something like that in there.  Also, environmental constraints prohibit us from dropping retardant in waterways....especially Oak Creek.

The Type 1 helicopter that responded that afternoon (Boeing 234 Vertol) was indeed being effective in slowing fire spread, but  he had to return to Prescott for mechanical inspection.  The smaller type 3 helicopter (A-Star), while not as effective was still doing a decent job but the smoke column laid over the head of the fire and he could no longer drop on the head due to visibility.  At that point all his effort was to the south and east sides.

And yes, retardant and water drops are made from low altitude.  Air tankers typically drop about 100-150' above ground level or tallest vegetation while helicopters can come in lower due to maneuverability. "

Ted: "I have heard that the USFS was using this fire as an opportunity to manage the fire and burn thousands of acres of forest which would otherwise have been scheduled for prescribed burning ... any truth to that"?

Brian: "Just for clarification, there was no intent to manage this fire for resource benefit.  Being a human caused fire and deemed unwanted, the management decision from the time it began was full control/suppression.  Due to the topography and the distance the fire had spotted the first day/night we were there, the only option we had was to make a big box and corral it inside the box.  Unfortunately, this increased the size of the fire and the area burned, but with no other way to safely fight the fire in the terrain and fuels it was established in, we made the decision to engage the fire on our terms, in areas that we could safely do so.  Hope this helps, and I too am pleased with the effects from firefighters being conscientious about burning out control lines back to the main fire and treating the land with the utmost care and respect".

Ted: "A comment on low altitude flying ... One of the helicopters had a bird strike taking out the left seat windscreen and another helicopter had a rotor blade strike on a tree; both made it back."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Grand Mesa Colorado Mudslide Beneath Sugarloaf Peak - Updated June 23

UPDATE - On June 20, NASA's Earth Observatory web site showed before and after pictures from space of the Colbran, CO landslide. They are excellent views of the area and you can look at the images here. As mentioned briefly below, there curiously is a gas well located at the head of the slide. No one seems to be talking about this. Anyway, I mention the NASA site for two reasons, to see the before and after shots but also to highlight that on that site there is a link to my posting. It is the highlighted text in paragraph 3, telling readers to check out "these diagrams." Glad to know the folks at NASA EO are watching Earthly-Musings!   

A massive landslide on the north slope of Grand Mesa, Colorado let loose on May 25 and three people are missing and feared dead. You can view aerial photos of the earth failure here. The images show the massive amount of earth that let loose and slid down the hillslope.

The landslide appears to have let loose beneath Sugarloaf Peak at an elevation of 9,400 feet. It "toes out" at about 7,400 feet (yep - landslides have toes). The map coordinates are N39.19078° W107.85518°. A view of the topography of this area can be viewed on Topoquest here. The road and aqueduct that were disrupted can also be seen on the map. Thanks to Chuck L. for this information.

It appears from Google Earth images that a previous slide had occurred on this slope. This slide is in the geologic past but most of the slides likely were active in the late Pleistocene Period, during the last Ice Age when conditions were much wetter here. There is some chatter on the web about the influence that fracking may have had on this, however it is apparent that slippage has occurred here long before fracking. Time will tell if this was a contributing cause or not.

The earth movement appears to be of a distinctive type called a Toreva landslide. These were first described in 1937 and named after the small Hopi Indian village of Toreva. The original article that describes these features can be accessed here. It makes for fascinating reading. See a complete treatment of Toreva blocks on Conor Watkins and J. David Rogers web site here.

The slide likely originated in the Green River and/or Wasatch formations, two of the younger rock units of the northern Colorado Plateau. These deposits are around 55 to 50 million years old and record deposition in ancient lakes and rivers. Here is a map to show the ancient setting of the deposit.

Image from "Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau" by Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney
The soft mudstones, claystones, and marls that are responsible for the earth fasilure were laid down along the shores of this ancient lake.

The landslide mass is approximately two miles long and 3/4's of mile wide near the top, thinning to about 1/2 mile wide in the middle. It covers about 700 acres. Jonathan White of the Colorado School of Mines was quoted on May 27 that a concern is that water is accumulating on top of the back-rotated block near the head scarp of the slide. This ponded water could further destabilize the huge mass of rock that has already slipped about 100 feet down.

Dan M. of Washington also sent me some really good geologic information on this particular area. You can access a USGS report on landslide studies of Grand Mesa here. Within the report are these two diagrams, showing how these features develop.

From Baum and Odum, 1996

From Baum and Odum, 1996

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Brad Paisley Sings About Geology On "A Prairie Home Companion" - May 10, 2014

It seems geology is the butt of many jokes with those who do not share its many splendors. Viewers of the television show "Big Bang Theory" love all of the science "geek-speak" but even the producers of that show can not resist the temptation to mock the field of earth science. You can watch one piece here.


Penny: What's wrong with geology?
Sheldon: Let me put this in a way you'll understand, Penny. You remember you explained to me that the Kardashians aren't real celebrities? Well geology is the Kardashians of science.


Sheldon: Why do we have a geology book? Leonard, did you throw a children's party while I was in Texas?


Amy: Well then, prepare to be terrified. If your friends are unconvincing, this year's donations might go to, say, the Geology department.
Sheldon: Oh no! Not the dirt people!

Well, last week on the May 10 edition of "A Prairie Home Companion", country singer Brad Paisley honored geology in a song. You can listen to it here. Way to goBrad! You even got all of the dates and names right!

Friday, May 02, 2014

Canyonlands With the Museum of Northern Arizona - 2014

Every year I lead a group of travelers and hikers on a trip to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks for day hikes. The trips are part of the Museum of Northern Arizona's Venture's Program. This program has been functioning as one of the longest running natural history tour programs on the Colorado Plateau. This years trip saw great wildflowers, excellent weather, and congenial hikers!

Locoweed blooming in Negro Bill Canyon. We all agreed that this canyon is in need of an updated name change. The name was changed once from something less flattering. Some local have suggested African American William Canyon. Ha! How about Bill's Canyon.

The stream is so clear, cool and refreshing in this canyon. This is not what most Moab area hikes look like.

At the upper end of the canyon is Morning Glory Arch (it's really a bridge) formed in the Navajo Sandstone.

We saw a hiking group rappel down the bridge.

The Navajo Sandstone in this canyon exposes many limestone beds within the sand bodies. These have been described as oasis deposits within the Navajo erg or sand sea in the Jurassic.

A close-up view of a limestone bed within the Navajo Sandstone.

Next was a visit to the stupendous Fisher Towers, located along the scenic Colorado River Byway (Utah Highway 128). In the background are the La Sal Mountains which can be seen from many vantage points in the Moab area. They has just recently been dusted with new snow.

We wanted to get close to the towers to see the amazing rocks exposed here. As J.W. Powell said, this is erosion on a grand scale!

The sediments are called the Cutler Group and are Permian in age. The cap rock is the Moenkopi Formation of Triassic age. This means that there is an unconformity in the rock record here that represents nearly 50 million years of earth history.

While the towers are the main draw, photographers will find many interesting erosional shapes to occupy their time here.

To the geologist, it is the texture of the Cutler Group that tells the big story here. Within the coarse sandstone and arkose, are many cobbles or boulders of Precambrian age schist, gneiss and granite. This is the debris that came off of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. When one follows the Cutler beds to the south and west, the deposit becomes finer-grained and more mature. This is what allows geologists to know with precision the ancient landscapes in this area.

After looking at the La Sals from far away, we just had to get close to this laccolith, by taking the La Sal Mountain Loop Road. The snow had just melted and we were among the first of the season to traverse the road.

You never know what you'll find on a desert hike - maybe a juniper tree birds nest filled with luscious peanut M&M's!

An early morning hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is a great way to beat the crowds in the springtime and the lighting is good as well.

The La Sal Mountains framed by the upper part of Delicate Arch. The arch is carved in the Entrada Sandstone, like the majority of the arches in this park.

Reflective time at Delicate Arch.

On another day, we head up to the heights to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. Along the way, one of our participants shared the location of a rock art panel with the group.

These are some of the most impressive and robust Big Horn figures I have ever seen. Thank goodness they are not vandalized!

A straight-on view. These are carved within the Jurassic Wingate Sandstone.

A spiral and other linear elements round out the panel. The black desert varnish that the glyphs are carved into can take thousands of years to develop.

Ekker Butte (left) and Elaterite Butte along the Green River in Canyonlands. Most landforms at this level are cut into a basal slope of Moenkopi and Chinle formations, an upper cliff of Wingate Sandstone, with a small cap of the Kayenta Formartion.

The Green River in the deep valley flows past Upheaval Canyon. The upturned edge of the dome can be seen on the far right.

Deformed strata near Upheaval Dome with the La Sal Mountains in the background.

Ruth perches on a rock above Monument Basin along the Colorado River side of the Island in the Sky.

Monument Basin. The red thin-bedded deposit that makes up the bulk of the spires is the Organ Rock Formation. This is a more distal section of the same rocks seen at Fisher Towers. This far west however, the strata are becoming more defined as they were farther from their mountain source.

Another view of the La Sals. Note the beginnings of a lenticular cloud high over the mountain. When I returned home to Flagstaff one day later, a spring storm would dump 5 inches of snow on April 26.

In the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is this old cowboy cave. Ranching used to be a big business here but the park was created in 1964 and the grazing leases were gradually retired.

Awesome scene.

A modern pack rat nest found in a niche within the Cedar Mesa Sandstone near the cowboy cave. These piles of debris are excellent for knowing what plants grow within 100 meters of the nest, since that is the distance a pack rat will travel to collect material. Imagine finding a fossil nest, where the feces and urine have cemented the woody material into a substance known as amberrat. Now you can see what was growing within 100 meters of the cave 10,000, 20,000, even 40,000 years ago! A virtual time machine into the vegetation of the southwest during the Ice Age. It's not the same old shit anymore!

What a wonderful group. To take part in next years trip, write to me to reserve your space.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Updated 3rd Edition of the "San Juan River Guide"

For those who love the San Juan River (and the only ones who don't are surely those who do not know its many charms), a new updated edition of Lisa Kearsley's river guide is now available for the start of the 2014 season.
The new edition contains information on an additional 19 miles of river, covering the reach between Montezuma Creek and the Sand Island put-in with maps and descriptions. As in previous editions, the river maps are constructed using USGS topographic base maps. But with the help of avid river runner Bryan Brown, Lisa reconfigured the position of the modern river channel on the maps. This will be useful for river runners in the wide valley portions of the river. The maps reflect the true position of the river based on Google Earth images taken in 2013.

A new chapter specific to the fossils of the San Juan River canyons has been added, written by long time river guide and paleontological enthusiast Christa Sadler . This new addition explains the various fossil forms seen in the Pennsylvanian age limestones. The guide also contains everything one needs to know about running the river; logistics, permit information, shuttle companies, archaeology, history and biology.

I have updated my chapter on the geology of the San Juan canyons. Inside you will find information about the rock layers, the cutting of the canyons, and the larger landscape elements upon which the river is found. My personal feeling is that the San Juan River region is one of the most spectacular parts of the Colorado Plateau. And even if you do not plan to run the river soon, you will want to add this impressive book to your Plateau collection.

One of the major improvements in this new edition is the widespread use of color in the photographs and diagrams. Here is an example of half of the two-page spread, showing the rock layers relative to the river. A color rendition of Ron Blakey's paleogeographic map of the Paradox Sea landscape for 308 million years ago will show river runners how the limestone rocks were formed.

The San Juan River Guide sells for $19.95 and you can order a copy of the new edition from Even if you have a copy of previous editions, there is enough new information and added color photographs to make a purchase worthwhile. See you on the San Juan!