The combination of strong winds whipping into the South Rim area and a weather forecast showing promise of precipitation allowed Grand Canyon National Park fire officials to go ahead with an aggressive controlled burn Thursday south of Desert View Drive.
Donna Nemeth, fire information officer for Grand Canyon National Park, points out some details about last week’s prescribed burn south of Desert View Drive.
Getting the green light from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, conditions were just right to ignite 2,600 acres in a span of only 3 1/2 hours.
"We’re on the leading edge of a frontal passage to arrive tomorrow," GCNP’s Dan Oltrogge said Thursday afternoon. "It’s pushing wind out of the southwest, pushing smoke to the northeast."
Burning in such windy conditions would not be advised if in the middle of summer during an ongoing drought. But the wind was welcomed last week so it could be used as a tool to control smoke and maintain ignition.
Donna Nemeth, the park’s fire information officer, compared the situation to campers trying to get their campfire going. Along with matches or a lighter, oxygen is needed for the fire.
"These winds are working in our favor now," Nemeth said. "They’ll help with smoke dispersal and they’re needed to push the fire along."
Smoke was heavy at times along Desert View Drive, making driving conditions hazardous. As a result, vehicles were being escorted through the smoke by a pilot car, similar to situations seen with heavy road construction.
The fires were ignited in units labeled as Hance and Watson by the National Park Service. Defined as a procedure to promote forest health, the areas were issued a "prescription" for the burns.
The Watson burn was the larger of the two, encompassing an area about five times larger than the Hance burn. They were located in an area six to seven miles southeast of Grand Canyon Village and south of Grandview Point.
"There are few, if any, sensitive reception sites," Oltrogge said, referring to smoke impacts. "It’s heavy along the highway here and will probably go all night or as long as needed. The wind is blowing hard, so that keeps it low and there’s no chance for it to lift out."
The smoke headed in a direction toward the rim of the Canyon and only slightly impacted views for visitors.
The conditions on Thursday relieved smoke impact on the community of Tusayan. Residents there reported some smoke in town the previous day. At that time, the operation was not as aggressive because of conditions.
Fire officials from the park got some help on the operation by other agencies, including Kaibab National Forest. Also among those working the burns were students from the Southwest Fire Use Training Academy in Albuquerque, N.M. It served as a chance for students to get out of the classroom and get hands-on training. At the same time, the park received some needed help.
Before ignition, workers created a black line around the perimeter of the burn area. This is done through hand ignition and serves as a buffer zone between the prescribed burn and public areas.
"It widens the safety zone and creates less of a chance (for the fire) to gain momentum and cross fire lines," Nemeth said.
Once the black lines are established, aerial ignition begins when devices resembling ping-pong balls are dropped from airplanes. A chemical reaction occurs when the balls hit the forest floor and 15 to 20 seconds later, there’s ignition.
"We drop hundreds, and maybe today, thousands, of these things," Oltrogge said. "It allows us to do mass ignition. ADEQ really likes this practice."
Throughout the burn areas, there are bright orange markers in the forest to direct airplanes on where to drop the ignition devices.
"We’re coordinating everything with the aerial ignition team and it’s going quick," Oltrogge said near the end of the operation. "We’ll probably be done by 1:30 with 2,600 acres."
Oltrogge was only five minutes off his estimate. Aerial ignition ended at 1:25 p.m.
The prescribed fires served as second-entry burns. These particular spots were burned with prescribed fire originally about seven years ago.
Toward the end of the operation, Desert View lost electricity. Power lines from the village to Desert View run high above the burn area. Arizona Public Service worked to restore electricity.
"We’ll be done today and then move to the North Rim and start burning the interface area where we have piles," Oltrogge said. "It’s the land of 10,000 piles."
The North Rim’s Walhalla burn will include 2,000 acres. The area is located five miles southeast of the developed area. The Bright Angel burn will include 100 acres and is located throughout the developed area.
"We’ll go ahead with that when we get clearance," Nemeth said. "We might have great conditions next week."