Wednesday, July 15, 2020
UPDATE: The Pima County Department of Transportation has since announced that the Mount Lemmon Highway will reopen on Saturday, Aug. 1.
As fire crews work to snuff out the last hotspots of the Bighorn Fire, a lengthy cleanup process begins. Throughout July, the weather has turned favorable with less wind and scattered rainstorms, helping firefighters to get the Bighorn roughly 90 percent contained after it burned across 119,000 acres. Now, Pima County has announced that access to the mountain will be closed to most travelers.
"Based on conversations with our [Burned Area Emergency Response] team, we have decided that the closure orders that we have out currently now will be consolidated into one closure order that will remain in effect until November 1,” said CJ Woodard of the Catalina Ranger District.
Exemptions to the closure order include residents of the Summerhaven and Willow Camp areas, and special-use permit holders for establishments like Mount Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory and Department of Transportation. Road closures stretch around the majority of the burn area, including Bear Canyon and Redington Road.
Catalina State Park is not part of the order. While it is still closed, it will reopen when staff deem it ready to do so.
"At this time, the Sheriff's Department is currently maintaining the road at the base of Mount Lemmon. This is due to the fact that we still have an active fire near Catalina Highway," said Pima County Sheriff’s Department public information officer Marissa Hernandez. "We ask that those Summerhaven residents that are utilizing that highway drive safely and that they notify the Sheriff's Department immediately of any hazards they encounter. That may include seeing a fire near the roadway or rocks."
Sabino Canyon also remains closed. According to the fire incident management team, factors determining the recreation area’s reopening include standing dead trees, trails being remarked, the potential for flooding and its aftereffects. Sabino Canyon’s closure order will constantly be reassessed and portions that are safe to open will be opened as soon as possible.
When Pima County reopens Catalina Highway, public access to Summerhaven will be allowed, but access to the general forest may be limited. Those with cabin reservations atop the mountain can visit the area, as long as the cabin is on private land and they can present proof of the reservation.
According to the National Forest Service, this road closure is being put in place for public health and safety with the oncoming monsoon rains. After a fire, terrain can become hydrophobic and result in greater flooding. In addition, damaged trees are more likely to be swept away.
“Post-fire watersheds are going to produce more runoff than they would if they were in unburned conditions,” said Lynn Orchard, chief hydrologist for the Pima County Regional Flood Control District. "One of the good news items is that we already have in place a very robust flood warning network that is used to help us during monsoon to be prepared and warn for flash flood and flooding hazards.”
Roughly 100 rain and flood monitoring sites are part of that system, 15 of which are in or near the burn area.
During the fire’s peak, nearly 1,000 personnel were assigned to the job. That number is now down to 59 as personnel continue with fire suppression repair efforts such as chipping, backhaul, and suppression rehabilitation.