The largest wildfire currently burning in Arizona, the Sunflower Fire, started on Saturday morning in the Mazatzal Wilderness. Since that time it has grown rapidly. On Monday, when I first visited the site of the fire, it was an estimated 3,100 acres in size. The fire grew to 4,600 acre by the end of Monday and then jumped to 12,000 acres last night.
Smoke from the fire created a haze that enveloped a good portion of the metropolitan Phoenix area, but yesterday afternoon the massive plume of smoke was what caught my eye. The beautiful yet ominous pyrocumulus cloud building to the northeast of Phoenix led me to the scene of the fire yet again.
Areas that were once filled with vegetation were now enveloped in a thick orange-hued cloud of smoke. I could barely see the mountains that were covered with thick green foliage just the day before.
I returned to the Sunflower Fire yet again today, this time meeting with several public information officers as I sat at a lookout point on Mount Ord. The terrain that was covered in the orange-hued smoke cloud yesterday was now charred. Pockets of flames still dotted the mountain, but the sky was blue and the air quality had improved significantly.
However, this was about to change. Dee Hines, one of the Sunflower Fire Public Information Officers (PIOs) I met, explained that somewhere around 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., the temperature would begin to rise, the humidity would fall and that it would once again be peak smoke plume time. Areas that were spared by the flames yesterday would likely burn today.
While much of the landscape was charred from yesterday's and last night’s activity, there were several pockets of land that were saved. Deanna Younger, another Sunflower Fire PIO, pointed out the bands of fire retardant that separated green growth from the charred ground. The fire crews had worked diligently to protect a high voltage power line running through the area and their work paid off — the line was safe. Fire crews also worked hard to protect the Cross F Ranch and according to PIO Dave Killebrew, the ranch is also safe.
As I stood on the side of Mount Ord watching the helicopters travel back and forth dropping buckets of water and fire retardant, I had to remind myself that it is only May. Peak fire season is still ahead of us and Arizona is already dealing with several large wildfires.
I asked Dr. Randall Cerveny, president’s professor of the School of Geographical Sciences at Arizona State University, about the early fire season and whether the most recent La Nina may have contributed to these May fires.
“During La Nina, generally the Southwest is dry while the Northwest is wet. Dry winter conditions means that the vegetation dries out and one small spark is all that is needed to start a fire. Fire season has begun earlier and earlier ... but that's due to people, not nature. Most fires out here in the West are human-caused ... particularly at this time of year.”
While the cause of the Sunflower Fire is officially under investigation, early reports reveal that it may, indeed, be human-caused.
Typically, once the fires start in Arizona I look forward to the monsoons and the possibility of rain to help out the firefighters. However, the monsoons present a new challenge. Cerveny explains, “The unfortunate thing is that the monsoon doesn't really help the fire situation since it usually starts with lightning and dry winds, not rains, so that's why July tends to be one of the fiery months of the year here in Arizona.”
Even though it is only mid-May and the fire season has started with a bang, Cerveny explains that La Nina is ending and we may experience an El Nino winter “and El Nino normally creates wetter winters for us here in the Southwest!”
This doesn’t help the 2012 wildfire season, but it may mean that the 2013 fire season is a little tamer.
For more photos of the fire, visit my Sunflower Fire Flickr page.