It's the dry season here in southeastern Arizona, which means it's also fire season. Last week alone lightning from some out-of-season thunderstorms sparked blazes Wednesday in lower Carr Canyon, Thursday at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains, and Friday just across the border in New Mexico. The photo shows the plume of smoke from the second fire, officially known as the Melendrez Pass Fire, as it looked from near the San Pedro River on Saturday.
Fire is a vital force in our ecosystems. Debris that might take years to decompose in this arid climate is reduced in minutes to nutrient-rich ash by low-intensity ground fires, and even tree-killing blazes allow light to reach the forest floor and stimulate sun-loving grasses and wildflowers (great for hummingbirds and butterflies). Unfortunately, our fire cycles have been thrown so out of whack for so many decades that any fire has the potential to become catastrophic, burning woodlands and forests right down to sterile mineral soil. To reduce this hazard and protect homes bordering public lands, the Forest Service has been putting substantial resources into thinning operations in some of the more popular canyons, removing debris, flammable brush, and low-hanging branches that fires can climb into the tree canopy ("ladder fuels"). They've even burned some of the debris piles, so it's not like a timber harvest operation that impoverishes the ecosystem by removing biomass along with all its nutrients.
Thunderstorms are a mixed blessing, especially this time of year when they produce more electricity than precipitation. If we're lucky, we won't have any more until the monsoon pattern develops, adding enough moisture to the storms to douse any fires they start.