PVFR Fire Chief Zay Hartigan advises incoming resources by radio as flame front approaches the State Natural Area in San Rafael Valley. Photo by Claire Hartigan

The San Rafael Fire was started by a tree knocking down a powerline in Lochiel on May 7 at 6:05p.m. It burned for about 40 minutes before a resident of the area called it in. The crews responding from Patagonia were 60 minutes away, and Sonoita and Coronado National Forest crews were 90 minutes away. I live in the fire’s path and drove down to give crews a report on the fire, as well as routing to it, coordinating the initial attack. Arriving just over an hour after ignition, I quickly sized up the 20 acre fire with the first homeowners in its path, as well as their house’s probability of surviving the fire. 

We watched as the fire, which had been burning slowly downhill in heavily grazed pasture, pushed by strong winds, changed before our eyes when it crossed the drainage. The slight slope it now climbed aligned with the winds. Having traveled 1/4 mile in its first hour, it now covered the second 1/4 mile in about eight minutes. In the first 24 hours of the fire, it traveled 12 miles and burned 11,620 acres. That’s over 18 square miles, and included multiple ranches, triggering enforced evacuations of over 80 people.

At 7:26p.m. the fire entered the State Park’s ungrazed pasture, and morphed again. Two-to-six-foot flames now grew to six-twelve feet, and then to 15 feet or more as it gained steam. In the 14 minutes between the time it entered the State Park, it traveled 3/4 mile and reached the historic ranch headquarters. 

I was continually updating the responding crews, as well as contacting the Park Ranger to get the front gate unlocked and their water system activated. I arrived at the compound to find an adequate to substantial firebreak and defensible space around the south and east sides of the buildings, and an alarmingly inadequate preparation around the corrals which span the entire west side of the compound, and were built right up to the barn, shop, and a couple other structures.

Half of the corrals were overexposed to the approaching flame front. At 7:36 I began burning along the good firebreak by the barn and corrals, hoping to extend the burn along the weaker section when the first engine arrived. At 7:39, the truck arrived, and at 7:40, the flame front hit, forcing us back to the safety zone in front of the ranch house. Six minutes later, when the flames had died enough that we could return, we found the outer layer of corral fence burning so hot and fast that it collapsed when hit with water from our hoses. The howling 20-30mph wind was spreading and fanning thousands of embers among the dried corral boards and against the barn and shop. 

We extinguished the flames, and wet down the embers that we could easily reach in the maze-like complex of pens. There were now two flame fronts, rushing around two sides of the complex, while super-heated air pushed embers through the corrals and into the adjoining structures, igniting patches of grass in the pens, and setting the stage for multiple time-delayed ignitions among the pens. Shorthanded, we rushed around between buildings extinguishing and wetting what we could reach.

The initial attack crews worked for 22 hours, well beyond a normal operating period of 16 hours, due to the extreme fire situation. Even with that, and more ground forces joining them overnight, as well as air support the next day, the fire continued to advance through and past multiple ranches until it was stopped the following day. 

When it came barreling towards our ranch complexes, all resources were devoted to containing the fire, and they managed to keep it across the county road, one mile from our buildings. 

It’s probable that, had the fire jumped the road, some resources would have been diverted to structure protection. If this had been a more populated area there would have been nowhere near enough resources. In all, five properties with multiple structures were burned over. The only structures lost were half of the corrals at the State Park, which had inadequate firebreak/defensible space, a piece of our county and our country’s history gone forever.