Team Begins Damage Assessment of Two Wildfires

PHOENIX (AP) -- Officials started assessing the damage two wildfires wreaked on almost 30,000 acres in the southeastern Arizona mountains.

An assessment team on Tuesday examined parts of the Pinaleno Mountains, where the Nuttall and Gibson wildfires have been burning for weeks.

The two blazes, which are about 15 miles southwest of Safford, merged over the weekend and are collectively referred to as the Nuttall Complex.

The fires had threatened the 74-cabin community of Turkey Flat, 15 cabins in Columbine and the $200 million Mount Graham International Observatory before firefighters fended off the flames. The cabin communities remained evacuated, but fire officials hoped to make a decision on when residents could return later in the week.

The combined fire was estimated at 29,400 acres and was 75 percent contained Wednesday. Full containment was expected on Monday, said Greg Tedder, a spokesman for the crew fighting the fire.

Officials said the cost of fighting the blaze stood at $9.3 million.

On Wednesday, crews began cleaning up suppression lines around the observatory by covering tracks. Some of the observatory staff was being allowed to do essential maintenance at the facility, one of the world's most advanced.

The forest rehabilitation team will decide what needs to be done to heal the larger charred area and will begin implementing measures next week. The team consists of watershed specialists, soil scientists, biologists, archeologists and engineers.

``We're going to look at the burned area and agree on what we consider to be severely burned,'' said Randall Smith, a Coronado National Forest biologist who is a member of the rehabilitation team.

Severely burned land - spots where vegetation has burned off and soil doesn't absorb water - can lead to a number of problems, Smith said. Among them are downstream flooding and erosion that can cause land slides.

The mixture of naked land and monsoons, late summer storms in the Southwest that can bring sudden heavy downpours, is a major concern, Smith said.

If homes are in flood plains and the rain is heavy enough, he said residents in and around the Pinaleno Mountains could experience flooding.

Last summer, the Aspen Fire near Tucson destroyed more than 330 homes on Mount Lemmon and stripped vegetation from about 85,000 acres of land.

The stripped land allowed for flooding when the monsoons hit, said Chris Cawein, a division manager within the Pima County Flood Control District.

Cawein said the flooding damaged or destroyed more than 50 homes in Pima and Pinal counties and caused the death of one man who was swept away by the water and later found dead downstream.

Nuttall Complex Fire spokesman Jim Whittington said the rehabilitation team for Mount Graham will prepare for flooding.

``If we do get into a situation where we are going to have increased water flow and increased debris flow that will affect roads, bridges and farms, we will set up a treatment regime,'' he said.

Treatments could include seeding, constructing ditches to divert water, mulching with hay to slow water flow, removing debris and protecting road crossings.

Smith said land charred by the Nuttall Complex will be vulnerable to flooding until vegetation grows back, which takes about five years.

The rehab team also plans to assess damage to the habitat of endangered Mount Graham red squirrels. Smith believes the squirrel habitat suffered some damage, but he was still trying to determine how much.

The squirrels, which live in spruce and fir forests in the area, are believed to number less than 300. Biologists believe the squirrels have lived on the peak since the Ice Age.