With the largest wildfire in Arizona history all but contained, specialized units pulled out of eastern Arizona on Tuesday leaving authorities at the heavily-scorched sites of blazes around the state to shift their focus to a new vulnerability — water.
Hundreds of square miles of Arizona wildlands have been left bare by three recent major fires and are now unprotected as seasonal rainstorms threaten to become the next danger disaster officials will have to avert.
Tuesday’s aftermath of a small thunderstorm the night before showed just how bad things could get in the area torched by the massive Wallow fire along the New Mexico border.
Apache County engineer Ferrin Crosby said the rain quickly turned the Little Colorado River into a raging torrent, even though the effect of such a storm usually wouldn’t be noticeable.
“I guess really the significance of that is it was a normal monsoon storm,” Crosby said Tuesday. “A half-inch, in a normal year with a normal forest condition, we don’t even see that water.”
He said a gauge at bridge in Greer measured 100 cubic feet of water per second rushing past after the storm. Typical readings are about 5 cfs, he said.
The fire in the area burned 841 square miles of forest, a tiny fraction of which was in New Mexico.
The blaze is about 95 percent contained. And the small part of the fire that remains unchecked — in a rugged section of the southeast fringe of the burned area — hasn’t grown in about a week.
At its height, more than 4,000 firefighters were on the lines; fewer than 600 remain.
Patrolling the completed fire lines and corralling the rest of the blaze is now the job of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest managers and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
Flooding is also a major concern at two other major Arizona wildfire burn areas.
A fire in southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua mountains tore through 348 square miles and was contained June 26.
Another blaze just north of the U.S.-Mexico border burned 48 square miles and was 98 percent contained Tuesday. Of the three major blazes, the fire outside Sierra Vista, about 15 miles north of the border, poses the biggest threat to homes.
Special teams are fanned out across the burned areas trying to minimize damage from runoff and assess the severity of the flood threat.
In Apache County, officials have placed sandbags in Alpine, Greer and Nutrioso and has them available in Springerville and Eagar as well, Crosby said.
Whether they can handle the floodwaters and debris flows expected to rush off the denuded mountains is another question.
The worst runoff will happen where the fire burned the hottest, which prevents the soil from absorbing rainfall. A formal assessment of how much of the Wallow fire area had severe soil damage is incomplete, but it is a substantial part.
“We think that if we get a really good storm that we’re going to see some potential of losing some bridges, losing some access on some county roads,” Crosby said.