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Steep Slopes in Black Range Mountains Hamper Firefighters

Courtesy Photo: Black Range Mountains’ rugged, steep terrain that recently burned during the Silver Fire, Gila National Forest
Silver City, NM; June 16, 2013--Firefighters working the Silver Fire may feel a historic name for the rugged Black Range is appropriate – Sierra Diablos, the Devil Range. The inhospitable terrain has hampered firefighting efforts not just directly, but indirectly due to the steepness of the area that has kept human use of the range very low.  The number one concern for firefighters is always safety, and the incredibly steep slopes and canyons of the Black Range present a number of safety challenges.

Firefighters directly attacked the fire from the ground and air the first day and built a containment line around the fire. They were forced to leave the area that night when burning logs rolled down the steep slopes outside containment lines, establishing fire below the firefighters. When two hotshot crews arrived the next morning, they determined that the fire was too dangerous to safely access because of the steep terrain and lack of safety zones. As a result of these concerns, fighting the fire for the next few days primarily utilized air resources such as air tankers and helicopters.  The focus also turned to Kingston and protecting structures there.
“Fire will typically burn more quickly uphill and the steeper the slope, the faster the fire moves,” said Gabe Holguin, Gila National Forest Staff Officer. “Combined with these extreme fire conditions from the drought, the steep slopes of the Black Range are significantly contributing to the extreme fire behavior we are seeing.”
The steep slopes have also significantly contributed to another challenge for firefighters in this area and south of Emory Pass – heavy fuels.  More importantly, this area has never been harvested for its timber value due to the difficult terrain.  "Outside of some very small scale logging associated with the mines in the area, the area where the Silver Fire started has never been commercially logged according to our records,” said Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell.  “The area is just too steep to make it economically feasible to log the area.”
With no major fires or logging in this area for at least a century, the forest grew thick and unhealthy, which allowed bark beetles to become established. The amount of beetle-killed trees in this area is significant and prior to the current temporary closure of NM State Highway 152, the dead, diseased trees could easily be seen by road travelers.
Once the fire is contained, the Black Range will continue to pose challenges as Forest managers work to rehabilitate and stabilize the area, continuing to earn its former name of Sierra Diablos.

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