KGUN cameraman and reporter filming in front of the Sonoita fire station. Photo by John Fielding

It all started with a flat tire. A vehicle hauling a pop-up trailer pulled out from the Border Patrol Inspection Station and headed up Highway 83 towards the pass. The tire came off and he was soon driving on his metal rim. Sparks were flying everywhere. Fire was engulfing the wheel well and the undercarriage of the vehicle.

The driver soon realized he had a problem, and looked for a place to pull over. In the meantime the sparks were starting little spot fires along the highway. Realizing there were no pull-offs coming up, he pulled over by the side of the road. The flames were being whipped by the high winds and sparks started igniting the dry grass next to the
car. The flames were soon out of control.

That’s how the ‘Oak Tree Fire’ started May 20.

The Border Patrol and firefighters from the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District were the first on the scene. The vehicle fire was quickly extinguished but the grass fire was out of control and heading northeast across the foothills of the Coronado National Forest.

Oak trees, manzanita, pinyon pines and junipers were now on fire. The highway was closed by DOT. Emergency crews from Patagonia, Whetstone, Tubac and Green Valley joined the fight. From further away came fire crews from Palominas, Picture Rocks, Pearce and even Eloy.

The Santa Cruz County Emergency Management and the Arizona State Forestry Division came to organize the battle and set up their planning command post at the fairgrounds in Sonita. Firefighters rested and slept overnight at the fairgrounds as the fire continued through the night. Caterers arrived to feed the weary crews. Some equipment and personnel from Sonoita stayed all night at the fire scene to protect the local residents.

By Sunday, it was all over. 2,023 acres had been burned, which included 1,715 acres of Coronado National Forest, 305 acres of state land, plus private and BLM land. Sonoita-Elgin Fire District Chief Joseph DeWolf and the fairgrounds played an important role in the successful termination of this wildland fire. Local residents were very thankful that their town was spared and that the winds blew northeast and not to the south.