Western wildfires have no respect for property boundaries. They’ve threatened federal nuclear facilities in New Mexico, burned thousands of acres on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, and wiped out public and private structures in several states.
In Southern Arizona alone, to-date destruction this year stands at more than 360,000 acres at a containment cost of over $100 million. Where flames have been, only blackened landscapes remain—miles and miles of sooty ash and dead trees. And officials are bracing for what they fear will be the next round of destruction.
Monsoon rains show up about this time of year, usually a welcome arrival to dampen a dusty desert that has not seen significant moisture in nearly three months. The fear this year is that rains will not come in the form of refreshing sprinkles, but in torrential downpours of anywhere from 2-to-8 inches in just several hours. Along with the possibility of new fires ignited by storm-related lightning, flash flooding becomes the newest menace with denuded mountainsides flowing downhill and wreaking havoc along the way. “There’s no magic fix for the double whammy of fires and floods,” says National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Drozd.
Wind-driven dry soil is already moving in watersheds near the Huachuca and Chiricahua mountains. “Heavy rains could bring debris flows of cement-like soil and ash slurry powerful enough to carry boulders as large as a car downstream,” according to Burned Area Emergency Response team member Marc Stamer.
Preventing initial erosion that follows such destructive fires is often a case of too-little, too-late, although emergency preparation against flooding is already underway. “We don’t have the luxury of a couple of months to solve this…we need to do it now,” Emergency Management Services Coordinator Mike Evans told a community meeting of concerned citizens worried that debris flow hazards in nearby canyons could put them at risk during rain events. “We know there’s going to be a lot of flooding, some of it very serious.”
Starting Tuesday, an initial 20,000 sandbags will be filled and distributed to divert torrents of flood waters around homes—instead of through them.