SONOITA — Scores of firefighters supported by tanker aircraft battled a wildfire Thursday across 2,023 acres of the Coronado National Forest, the largest wildfire the Southwest has seen so far this spring.
The fire, which began midafternoon on Wednesday, was fueled by abundant grassland — as well as oak, pinyon pine and juniper — that benefited from a heavy monsoon season last year. “A lot of those plants are dead and ready to burn,” Heidi Schewel, a spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest, said on Thursday. “The fuel was there.”
While no flames were visible from the road, strong winds carried the smell of smoke for miles while the surrounding terrain was black. Most of the affected acreage was still hot, and if the wind picked up, the fire could reignite, said another spokeswoman, Michelle Fidler. She said on Thursday that the fire was 20 percent contained; by Friday, it was 50 percent contained.
Ms. Fidler encouraged drivers not to park their cars over dry vegetation and also urged people with trailers to prevent chains from dragging on pavement.
One less spark means one less wildfire.
The fire was “human-caused,” according to Coronado officials, but no specific cause was given pending an investigation. On Thursday, no structures had been damaged, but the wind had the potential to push it toward the closest structure which was three miles away.
Although wildfires are common in southern Arizona, many had hoped that the unusually cool weather would make fires less likely, Ms. Schewel said.
“Some folks may have gotten complacent thinking we were in the clear for a while,” she said.
Recent rain storms bought the Tucson area some time, but the fire made it clear that dry grass and brush still have the potential to ignite and spread rapidly in the region despite cooler temperatures, Ms. Schewel said.
A second fire began to spread Thursday evening in steep, rugged terrain at Redington Pass near Anillo Tank. The fire was also caused by human actions, according to a Coronado incident report.
On Thursday afternoon, at the site of the earlier fire, John Conger, a firefighter for Tubac Fire District, pulled over on the side of State Road 83 to fill up his firetruck with more water.
Mr. Conger said he arrived on Wednesday at 7 p.m. and spent the night reinforcing fire lines and cleaning up hot spots with water and hand tools. He was one of 140 men and women who had been called to the scene, Ms. Fidler said.
Mr. Conger has been a firefighter for 15 years and cannot count the number of fires he has responded to. For southern Arizona, this was a pretty late start for wildfire season, he said.
“Normally by this time of year I’m tired of fighting fires,” he said.
Mr. Conger and the other firefighters spent the night at the main base, a few miles south on State Road 83 in Sonoita. The agencies had created a makeshift camp out of the Santa Cruz County Fair & Rodeo Association, where crew members slept overnight in tents or in sleeping bags outside. In the morning they ate breakfast and were briefed before heading out into the fire.
When his truck was filled and ready to go, he told Laura Mattox, a firefighter with Patagonia Volunteer Fire and Rescue, whose truck carried 2,000 gallons of water to resupply firefighters.
Ms. Mattox and Mr. Conger have been through several fires together, Mr. Conger said. He tends to see some of the same people each time he fights a fire. He said he recently ran into someone he had met while fighting fires in Northern California.
Mr. Conger said he expected that firefighters would be on-site through Friday, at least.
“It’s just part of the job,” he said. “I’m used to 16-hour work days, six hours of sleep and just making sure my truck’s ready for the next day.”