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."

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