PHOENIX — The largest wildfire in Arizona history left a charred landscape of blackened forest, burned-out vehicle hulks and charred fireplaces as it destroyed more than 30 homes. It also inflicted a serious toll on an ecosystem that's home to numerous endangered species.
The flames spared three packs of endangered Mexican gray wolves but likely killed at least some threatened Mexican spotted owls as it roared through more than a half-million acres of a pristine forest on the New Mexico border.
Though some spots were untouched or had only undergrowth burn, the effect of the human-caused Wallow fire will last for decades because it burned so hot in many areas that it completely denuded the landscape, forest specialists said.
"The natural fires are good for a healthy forest, but these fires – where the debris has been allowed to build up and it just hasn't been addressed – they come out very hot and just scorch everything. As soon as the monsoon shows up, there's a potential for a lot of soil to move," said Tom Buckley, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman.
Forest managers are warning homeowners in the White Mountains to get flood insurance immediately because summer storms will likely create severe runoff.
It's part of the steep human cost from the 832-square-mile blaze that continues to churn through thousands of new acres per day in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
The fire destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins. The charred skeletons of vacation homes are physical reminders of disrupted lives and bygone memories. For many Arizona desert dwellers, the mountains provided an escape from the heat for generations.
The Wallow fire was 61 percent contained on Thursday but still slowly growing on the south and southeast flanks.
Two other major fires are burning in the state. The 44-square-mile Monument fire near Sierra Vista, Ariz., has destroyed 57 homes. Authorities lifted an evacuation order for an estimated 200 to 300 homes Thursday, but about 300 remain evacuated. The 348-square-mile Horseshoe Two fire atop southeastern the Chiricahua mountains has destroyed nine homes in the world-renowned bird watching area.
The three wolf packs in the Apache-Sitgreaves all had pups and were in or near their dens when the fire that broke out on May 29 roared through, said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Firefighters on the ground have seen two of the packs moving around with their pups. Radio collars on the three adults in the third pack show they are alive, but the status of their pups remains unknown because they are in an area still too hot for ground crews to enter.
"They're there, and functioning, and able to persist and take care of their pups," Paxon said. "We feel very confident that our wolves are out there and they've all got pups, and that's a good thing."
The Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday it had not confirmed the pups survived.
The wolves were reintroduced into Arizona and New Mexico beginning in 1998. Managers had hoped to have more than 100 in the wild by 2006, but the count stood at 42 at the beginning of 2010.
The spotted owls are another matter.
Crown fires in overgrown forests have become the greatest cause of unusual losses for the birds, and 73 protected nesting areas were burned in the fire, said Beth Humphrey, Apache-Sitgreaves biologist. There are 145 protested nest sites in the entire 2.1 million acres forest.
Any nestlings or eggs caught in the fire were surely lost, although mortality among adults was likely limited, Humphrey said.
"We don't know the severity of the impacts of those owl sites," Buckley said. "Fires don't burn evenly, so we have a lot of hope that some survived."
Fish and Wildlife is looking to see if prey for the wolves and owls will return quickly enough to let the animals stay in their regular areas.
The burned forest supports more than a dozen other endangered or threatened species, including snails, frogs and fish. Dozens of other species live in the forest that aren't rare, including bear, deer, antelope and a herd of elk that, at about 6,000, is among the state's biggest.
Only two dead elk have been found, Paxon said. A yearling calf had to be euthanized because its hooves were badly burned.
"These ungulates, the elk and the deer and the antelope, they're a whole lot smarter than people are when it comes to evacuations," Paxon said.
"When they feel heat, they will move away from heat toward a cooler area, and generally that's perpendicular to the way the fire's going. If it's not a huge fire, they often circle around and come back in. If it is a pretty widespread fire front, they simply get out in front of that and go over the hill into the next drainage."
The next round of damage will come once summer rains hit. The National Weather Service is warning of major flash floods and debris flows even with a 15-minute-long moderate downpour.
A 23-square-mile fire outside Flagstaff, Ariz., last June led to severe flooding from summer rains that inundated more than 80 homes and led to the drowning death of a 12-year-old girl.
The flooding from the Wallow will kill fish, since it will carry major flows of ash and sediment and clog streams. Decades-long efforts to restore endangered Apache and Gila trout to the streams that flow from the mountain will be hurt.
Already, plans are being made to pull pure Apache trout from streams where it is expected they will die, to preserve the lineage, said Julie Meka Carter, native trout conservation coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. They could be put in other streams or placed in hatcheries for as long as three years, until the ash and sediment flows subside.
"The forest will be very changed, very, very different," said Apache-Sitgreaves forest supervisor Chris Knopp.