The worst fire in the history of Arizona may be out, but the Gila Valley could feel the effects of the Wallow Fire for two to three more years.
Although the Wallow Fire has been 100-percent contained, efforts to deal with the disaster's effects are just beginning, attendees of a meeting of the July 14 Gila Watershed Partnership of Arizona found.
Ranchers, geologists, biologists, BLM spokesmen and nature lovers discussed the impact of the fire and measures that can be taken to mitigate damage.
Consultant Frank Hayes presented general background information on the Wallow Fire. The Wallow fire, Arizona's largest, left behind large amounts of ash deposits and other debris. In some places, there could be as much as one foot of ash on the ground, which can wash into streams, rivers and creeks during storms, Hayes said.
Hayes, a retired ranger from Clifton, said, “It is two to three years that you're going to have ash moving, but again, it will depend on the amount of rainfall that you have. It could depend on the number of hailstorms you have; you know, if you have a major hailstorm or two, it will move debris downslope.”
Ash is flowing into the Gila watershed. On July 5, ash was first detected in the San Franciso River near Clifton. The San Francisco River flows into the Gila River, and ash flowed into the Gila Box on July 13. The ash in the rivers has begun to kill many of the fish in the area.
BLM biologist Heidi Blasius reported that on July 5 she saw the beginning signs of a fish kill in the San Francisco River. She also monitored the development of the fish kill in the Gila River.
Blasius reported that at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 13, there were no signs of a fish kill, but by 3 p.m. visitors to the Gila Box had reported signs of a fish kill.
Blasius said, “There is a substantial kill going on right now in the Gila Box.”
“I don't know how long something like this is going to take to recover. . . because not only are the fish affected, aquatic insects are going to be affected; everything is going to be affected, and so it's going to be an interesting wait and see.”
Blasius had some good news. She reported that Bonita Creek would be spared from the ash and fish kill.
Deborah Mendelssohn, who recently tested the San Francisco River and the Blue River, said, “We're in a very preliminary stage at this point, but we are seeing in the San Francisco the E. coli numbers are going off the charts, so we actually don't know how much E. coli there is in the water because it exceeds our maximum measurement.”
Mendelssohn sent water samples to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which will evaluate the samples and notify the appropriate state counties of health concerns.
At the end of the meeting, community members discussed how they could aid in the cleanup efforts. The group decided to draft a letter to the Forest Service indicating their availability and desire to assist in the recovery.
Watershed Chairman Bill Brandau indicated that the purpose of the Gila Watershed Partnership, which meets on the second Wednesday of each month, is to serve as a forum for community members to overcome their disagreements and work toward a common goal.
To be effective, everyone in the community should be involved, not just those who have an interest in the river.
The condition of the Gila watershed affects recreational and drinking water, and its impact on farming and other industries can even damage the economy.
Brandau indicated a map of the watershed and Wallow Fire. “This is like a big skillet, and everything falls within that green line, and it comes down and ultimately flows through Safford,” he said.