River burn still a smoldering issue
The success of a several hundred-acre prescribed burn that took place earlier this month at the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge depends on whether you happened to be staying in the nearby state park it endangered, or a member of the land agency that conducted it.
While refuge officials are calling the fire a success, for Tom Cunningham, who's been coming to Picacho State Recreation Area for the past 25 years, it was a nothing short of a complete disaster.
"It was far from controlled," said Cunningham, who stays at the state park in a mobile home. "It was rather spectacular, though, in that huge black clouds with flashes of red, blue and orange rose into the sky."
On Feb. 4, the Imperial Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge crews ignited a fire on the Arizona side of the Colorado River intended to burn about 600 acres in order to improve habitat for the Yuma clapper rail, an endangered bird that lives in the area.
Refuge Assistant Manager Greg Birkenfeld said clearing out the dead cattails and bulrushes was necessary to promote new growth along the river and in adjacent backwater areas
"After several years the cattails fall down and become matted, preventing the birds from using them," Birkenfeld said. "Clearing out the dead vegetation will provide better a habitat because new plants that the birds like to use will grow back."
The fire was started around 10:30 a.m. by pellets that ignited upon impact after being dropped from an overhead helicopter. Within 45 minutes, the fire was producing large columns of smoke visible to Yuma residents, Birkenfeld said.
"The flames were topping out at 50 to 60 feet,"said Cunningham, whose trailer was threatened by the fire. "Lighting the fire on a windy day was totally reckless. The fire got out of control and burned everything else in the process."
Birkenfeld said the wind was very light along the river when the fire was initially lit, but later picked up, causing the fire to jump to the California side of the river and burn 200 acres in the Picacho State Recreation Area.
Birkenfeld said the fire was under control within a couple of hours and that non-native tamarisk trees dominated much of the burned area and that the wildlife service and California State Parks will be working cooperatively to control the invasive species in the future.
The escaped fire also partially burned the remains of a historic stamp mill structure and came within two feet of the ranger station in the recreation area, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Also burned were several acres of native willow-cottonwood habitat in the Marcus Wash region of the recreation area in California, the service said.
"This is what happens every time you give a federal employee a lit match - they burn down the world," said Martinez Lake resident Neil McCallum. "To see the people who are supposed to be watching our wildlife let something like this get so out of control really bothered me."
Among those native trees, said McCallum, who lives 15 miles down river from the burned area, was one of the oldest stands of cottonwoods and willow trees along the river which was a popular nesting area for herons and egrets.
Birkenfeld said the Fish and Wildlife Service and California state parks staff are working jointly to restore the native habitat that was damaged and to stabilize and repair the damage to the historic mill.
Following the prescribed burn, an interagency review was conducted, Birkenfeld said. The review found that all the proper protocols and procedures were followed.
The burn is being called a success on 600 acres on the Arizona side of the river.