By Mary Alice Murphy
Gila National Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell opened the meeting to tell everyone present that Silver City, Pinos Altos and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument are "open for business."
Punky Moore, acting public affairs officer, said several people would speak and a question-and-answer session would follow at the end of the presentations. Specific questions could be asked at the end, around the maps, which showed the extent of the fire, and trail and road closures.
Silver City District Ranger Russ Ward said his district made the initial attack. "It was first reported just after 3 p.m., and was human-caused about ½ a mile up Signal Peak Road. An engine was up at the lookout tower and was on its way down when the lookout called in the fire. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the fire was up and over Signal Peak. By 6 p.m., it had burned 2,700 acres. Attention was turned to folks in the woods, such as in the Lockney Holdings. A helicopter pulled two people and some of their pets out, and the folks at Little Cherry Creek got out. We had a lot of resources coming in. A Type II team is coming in. We are trying to put the fire out as quickly and safely as we can."
Rocky Ahshapanek, the first incident commander, said the fire took off up to Signal Peak and personnel secured the burned area and tied in the road systems down to the bottom of the draw at Meadow Creek Road. They held both overnight. The Silver City and Gila Hotshot crews have knowledgeable leadership who came up with plans. They identified an old line from the Skates Fire and then turned their attention to the ridge. He said they wanted to stop it from moving southward toward more populated areas.
"We have 110 to 120 personnel on the ground," Ahshapanek said. "They put a direct handline in just above the Lockney Holdings. They cut the old road to the lookout. We did a lot of reconning today, with lighter winds and less smoke."
Moore said about 300 people were on the fire now, and it had grown to about 4,700 acres, at zero containment.
Lance Elmore of the Type II team, said there had been a lot of progress on both sides of the fire. The plan for tomorrow is to mop up what's been burned and to get on the north and south sides to tie it in on the east side.
Gabe Holguin, GNF fire and aviation staff officer, pointed out that there have been major fires the past few summers, due to the drought. First the Miller and Wallow fires, then the Whitewater-Baldy and last summer the Silver Fire. "They were all due to drought conditions. Again this winter, we had basically no snow, so all the stressed trees are vulnerable to fire." He said the fast growth of the fire was due to the drought conditions. "We are 99 percent sure it was human-caused, because we have had no lightning."
"We do our best to enforce the restrictions," Holguin continued. "I want to thank all the law-abiding citizens. I'm happy the Type II New Mexico team came in quickly, because logistics will be hard. It takes a lot to feed the firefighters. The Type II team is in command as of 6 p.m. today."
Rich Nieto, Type II Incident Team commander, said it took aggressive efforts since yesterday with the Signal Fire being the No. 1 priority for the region, which includes New Mexico and Arizona. He introduced his trainee and his assistant incident commander.
"You probably heard lots of aircraft flying today," Nieto said. "That's because of the low winds."
Moore said the Forest Service would continue putting out news while transitioning to the team, which is posted at Fort Bayard.
She then opened the meeting to general questions, and asked that more specific ones be asked around the maps.
The first question was about the intensity of the fire.
Ahshapanek said yesterday there was a lot of crown fires, but it was less intense today.
"Yesterday's fire was a mosaic, with some stand replacement, especially on the north side of Signal Peak," Holguin said. "It was faster and hotter going uphill. We observed the north side from the highway 15 intersection straight up to the tower was stand replacement. Today the fire was backing over the ridge."
A questioner asked about the chance of smoke coming into Silver City.
Holguin said he expects the impacts tomorrow would be similar to today, with more smoke in Bayard, Hurley and Arenas Valley than in Silver City.
A speaker noted there is a smoke monitor in Silver City and likely one will be placed in Mimbres and another in Lake Roberts.
"We are in contact with the smoke folks," Moore said.
An audience member asked that someone let the Hotshots know "how much we appreciate them." She then asked, because enforcement is difficult, if the forest were thinking about moving to Stage 3 restrictions, which just means no fires.
"We are continuously evaluating whether to up the restrictions," Holguin said. "The ones who obey the laws do so and those who don't won't."
A questioner asked where the slurry planes were coming from.
"The helicopters are stationed at the Grant County Airport," Holguin said. "The four air tankers are out of Fort Huachuca, with one of the tankers dropping 10,000 gallons a shot. We have the option of reloading them with retardant at our airport, but we have a problem with refueling."
Moore noted that closures of roads and trails would be going into effect Tuesday morning.
Kelly said the trail to the Big Tree is closed because of the fire operations base.
Ellen Brown pointed out on a map the trails and roads that would be closed. They include the Cherry Creek and McMillan campgrounds, the Arastra site and trail, the Ben Lilly Monument and trail, the Signal Peak trailhead, the Little Cherry Creek Trail and part of the Continental Divide Trail. Others closed as of Tuesday morning would be the Cross Mountain Road, the Meadow Creek Road and the Lockney Road. At Fort Bayard, in addition to the Big Tree Trail, the Wood Haul Wagon Road Trail and Sawmill trails would be closed. The Cornell Ranch and Fence Line Trails would also be closed.
"These closures are for public safety," Brown said. "The fire camp is close to the Forest Service admin site at Fort Bayard. New Mexico 15 will be closed all the way from Ben Lilly Monument to New Mexico 35. The information will be available on the Gila National Forest website."
Grant County Fire Management Officer Randy Villa told the Beat, seeing that the fire was human-caused, the public needs to keep in mind the volatility of fuels. "The restrictions are in place to protect lives and property." The county restriction can be found on the Grant County website at www.grantcountynm.com.