Be prepared for black water runoff from Frye Fire

Contributed Photo/Courtesy LBTO J. Riedl: Ash coats the ground covering areas burned by the Frye Fire. The BAER Team reported only about 5 percent of the fire was a high-severity burn such as this.

Frye Fire at 48,014 acres with 66 percent containment

By Jon Johnson

“There’s going to be black water coming.” – Salek Shasiquallah, Coronado National Forest hydrologist and lead BAER team member on the Frye Fire

MOUNT GRAHAM – While rain will be the ultimate resource that finally puts out the Frye Fire for good, with the precipitation comes new problems, including flooding and damage to the watershed. 

The Frye Fire is still active but with the summer monsoon season right around the corner steps are being taken now to alleviate the issues the rain could cause. To that end, a Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) Team has joined the fray.

As of Friday morning, the Frye Fire was listed at 48,014 acres with 66 percent containment and a cost of roughly $21.2 million to fight it. The fire was started by lighting at about 2:45 p.m., June 7. 

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Fry Fire District: The Frye Fire has burned more than 48,000 acres on Mount Graham.

While the southern side of Mount Graham is still advancing and bing actively fought, the northern side is mostly in a smolder phase that is just being periodically checked. On the northern side, the main focus has now begun to shift to preventive measures to alleviate flooding concerns and watershed issues.

At a community meeting on the Frye Fire at Thatcher Middle School on Thursday night, Tucson hydrologist Salek Shasiquallah advised the public to be ready for “black, stinky water” to come off the mountain.

“The mountain is burned, and that means there’s a lot of ash up there,” Shasiquallah said. “And that means, no matter what, that there is going to be black water coming down. There’s no way that anybody can do anything about that. It just really depends on how the rains come as to how that black water comes down.”

Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Valley Central: The water flowing off the mountain won’t be clear like this during the monsoon but “black and stinky.”

Shasiquallah said his BAER team is taking a three-pronged approach to alleviating the problem as much as possible that includes mapping the fire to figure out the risks associated with the fire, putting together a flood warning system for the Gila Valley and a flood response plan.

Jon Jonson Photo/Gila Valley Central: Frye Mesa Reservoir as it looked before the fire.

Safford district Fire Management Officer Everett Phillips said there would be a definite impact to the Frye Mesa Reservoir when the rains wash the ash down the mountain.

“Frye Mesa, there’s going to be some impact when it rains,” Phillips said. “The headwaters of Frye Mesa was high-severity, so there’s going to be some impact to Frye Mesa.”

Phillips added that he didn’t see any impact from the helicopters taking water out of Riggs Lake or Cluff Ponds to fight the fire and that Riggs Lake had low-severity fire that won’t have that adverse of an effect and that Cluff Ponds will be assessed to see how the fire in Ash Creek effect Cluff Ponds.

Incident Management Change

The Northern Rockies National Incident Management Team, a Type 1 Team, will be transferring management of the Frye Fire to the Southwest Area Type 2 Team led by Jeff Andrew on Friday at 6 p.m.

Fire suppression efforts continue to mainly take place on the southern side of Mount Graham with aerial support aiding ground fighting efforts.

A Hot Shot crew has helped check the advancement into Turkey Flat with a hand line, but there still is a danger of the fire sweeping around Turkey Flat into a stand of trees that hasn’t been burned in more than 100 years and coming toward the cabins from the south.

Additionally, the southwestern side continues its growth as the sun beats down on the area, lowering the humidity. On Thursday, a single-engine air tanker was called in around noon to drop retardant in the active fire area northeast of Fort Grant as helicopters continue to do bucket work to help reduce the fire’s intensity as it continues to back down ridges and drainages.

Stage 2 Fire Restrictions remain in effect for all of the Coronado National Forest and Mount Graham remains closed to the public.  Flight restrictions, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are still in effect as well.