This summer I took a camping trip with my honors advanced biology class to much of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim including: Fossil Creek, Horton Creek, Payson, and then on to the Sipes National Forest, Alpine, Nutrioso, The Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, Greer and finally Wood Canyon Lake. The purpose of the trip was to work with the Arizona Fish and Game Department as part of the Mexican wolf reintroduction project and bear tracking project. It was interesting to see the variety of landscape and vegetation as we left the Phoenix desert and headed north. The vegetation included chaparral plants, many different evergreens, beautiful Ponderosa Pines, and a variety of other pines. I never realized how many different kinds of Pine trees there were before.
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Unfortunately we were unable to work with the wolves and bears because we got caught in the middle of the historic Wallow Fire. What began as an environmental biology trip to the National Forest areas changed quickly into a historic trip of memories which many will never get to see. We had planned to monitor and collar wildlife, and instead observed how fire affected the wildlife, directly in front of us. Everyone we were supposed to work with the regarding the wildlife had to be directed toward the fire management, and safety. Sadly the wolf cubs Fish and Game was to pick up by Hannigan’s Meadow, perished in the fire, before we ever got to them. The Fish and Game employees and some of the firefighters ended up camping where we were on the National Forest grounds of Sipes. They were able to update my group about the rapid expansion of the fire, and it seemed as if it was everywhere we had been or where we were about to go. As we headed down to Alpine, we stopped at the Fish and Game Department in Springerville. There we were told that the fire had already consumed Hannigan Meadow, our ultimate destination, and was twenty miles southwest of Alpine. There was a 12 hour evacuation order for Alpine, so we thought we would head down and see the town as it existed that day. As we were in Alpine we observed how dense the forests were and wondered if the fire expansion could have been slowed with limited logging of the trees. Environmental groups had prevented this for the preservation of the Spotted Owl instead causing the loss of the entire environment for all wildlife. The fire moved so rapidly that by the time we got to Alpine, status changed from a 12 hour evacuation to a one hour evacuation notice. We drove through the town and took pictures of as much as possible to document what might never be seen again. As we were leaving Alpine and heading towards Nutrioso, we saw about 150 horses and a bunch of elk grazing, oblivious to the fire heading their way.
The sky went completely dark red, though it was only 2:00pm. It looked like a crazy storm with the moon out, but then we realized what we were seeing was the sun obscured by the smoke. Pieces of ash were falling on us and we learned that embers where being sent four miles ahead of the fire, due to the weather created by the intense fire heat. We left Alpine and headed 18 miles north to Nutrioso, another quaint forest community. Again we evacuated as the fire approached. After seeing the devastation, I would never chance an illegal burn, nor leave a fire unattended. We observed firsthand how careless fires can be incredibly devastating and hard to control.
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