Florida Fire Prompts Evacuation of Mount Hopkins, Madera Canyon

Lori Stiles and Janis Leibold
July 15, 2005

(Updated July 19) Firefighters used a combination of aerial and ground ignition techniques to burn fuels on the east side of Madera Canyon on Monday. That, they say, will reduce the potential threat to homes in the area in the days ahead.

Fire officials made the decision to burn the area while conditions were in their favor rather than waiting for the fire to burn on its own terms when fuels are either too dry or too wet. Smoke visible over the Canyon Monday afternoon was the result of this carefully planned burning operation.

Overnight, up to one inch of rain fell on portions of the fire while other portions received little to no precipitation. Continued burnout operations have been put on hold for Tuesday due to the rain. Firefighters say they will reassess their strategies for completing containment of the fire.

Progress on the fire lines and the added rainfall means operations are beginning to shift from a suppression to a rehabilitation approach. That will include preparing fire lines to handle additional rain without erosion, restoring roads used during the fire to good condition and other activities designed to mitigate any effects of the suppression activities.

Structural protection will continue in Madera Canyon and around the Mount Hopkins Observatory. The evacuation of Madera Canyon and Mt. Hopkins Observatory remain in place.

Firefighting resources continue to be released from the Florida fire to assist with other fires in Arizona and New Mexico.

Access to some areas is still restricted. Those include:

Gardner Canyon Road (Forest Road 92), closed 5 miles west of Highway 83;
Greaterville/Box Canyon Road (Forest Road 62), closed 4 miles west of Highway 83 and also near Continental School;
Temporal Road (Forest Road 72),
Adobe Road (Forest Road 234),
Hog Canyon Road (Forest Road 627),
Big Casa Blanca Road (Forest Road 152).

The temporary road closures will remain in effect while firefighting crews continue battling the Florida Fire. All temporary trail closures also remain in effect.

The Florida Fire, some 11 miles east of Green Valley, prompted the evacuation of all observatory personnel from Mount Hopkins and staff at the Santa Rita Experimental Station on Tuesday, July 12.

On Wednesday July 13, growth of the fire forced the evacuation of Madera Canyon.

The lightning-caused fire started July 7 on Florida Peak.

The part of the fire that is heading in the direction of the MMTO has progressed partway down the slope to Josephine Saddle and is within a mile of the telescope.

Fire crews have cleared the summit of scrub oak and other brush to 50 feet downhill, Schmidt and Russ report. A large area around the observatory has been soaked with wet slurry, and crews feel they are holding the fire at bay around the observatory at the present time.

Dennis Smith and Emilio Falco of the MMTO were allowed to visit the site on Wednesday, July 13, to complete the sealing of fresh air louvers to the telescope building. They also moved expensive equipment away from the outside walls and windows. All visits now require the donning of fire protection suits.

"There's a lot of angst here," Whipple Observatory public information officer Dan Brocious said. "You'd like to pick up a shovel and help dig a fire line. But we're helping the firefighters by letting them know what we have on the mountain in terms of water, sprinkler systems, etc. that could be of use. Water from the observatory's 250,000 gallon water storage tank is available for back sprayers and trucks."

The MMT is operated by the MMT Observatory (MMTO), a joint venture of the Smithsonian Institution and The University of Arizona. The MMT is located on the summit of Mount Hopkins, the second highest peak in the Santa Rita Range of the Coronado National Forest, approximately 30 miles south of Tucson. The MMT is on the grounds of the Smithsonian's Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO), which operates a base camp and a Visitors Center at Amado, Ariz.

Mark Heitlinger, Santa Rita's range manager, said the Santa Rita Experimental Station was saved from the fire and currently looks like a small oasis surrounded by the remnants of a backburn.

Because of the fire prevention and preparation done by UA personnel, Heitlinger said the fire management team saw the potential to save the 13 buildings on 25 acres at the headquarters of the Santa Rita Experimental Range (SRER), which is 40 miles south of Tucson.

For years, station staff have prepared for possible wildfires by pruning back dead limbs and grasses surrounding structures. Staff have also undergone fire coordination training, reserved 50,000 gallons of water and maintained equipment.

Firefighters this week hand dug a fire break around the entire 25 acre site and set up a sprinkler system around the perimeter of the head quarters. They coated all the building with compressed air foam and cleared any excess brush. They then set back burns or back fires so when the fire slowly trailed down the mountain on Wednesday, it came up to the previously burned area and burned itself out around the station.

"The Arizona State Land Department in 2001 produced a suppression plan for the experimental range, and we had it in place," Heitlinger said. "From my standpoint, there have been two key ingredients to our success and that's preparation and coordination. The University can be really proud how we came through this. We have a model and it can be used as an example on how to survive this."

Established in 1902, the 80 square mile range is the oldest experimental range in the country. SRER is used to study range recovery from drought and overgrazing, as well as sustainable grazing practices.

All public access to the Madera Canyon Recreation Area and access roads are restricted.


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