The Rancher and the Wallow Fire

Voices from the Future | Wink Crigler

The Rancher and the Wallow Fire

The Event: On May 29, 2011, two men left a campfire unattended in the Bear Wallow Wilderness of Eastern Arizona. Driven by heavy winds, embers flew into the forest, igniting a blaze that eventually claimed 539,049 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests of Arizona, as well as 15,407 acres in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Firefighters achieved 100 percent containment at 6 p.m. on July 8, 2011.

Wink Crigler wasn’t afraid when the Wallow Fire came within 200 feet of her back door.

She wasn’t afraid because she was prepared. Still, the event made her realize that patience, education and collaboration might be the key to mitigating future catastrophic fires.

While Wallow is the largest wildfire in Arizona history — it burned more than 538,000 acres— it wasn’t the first. The Rodeo-Chediski, Willow, Cave Creek Complex and other large fires had come before, along with a slew of smaller fires statewide. With an arid climate and a multi-year drought, Arizona is often a headline maker during the months-long fire season.

That’s why Crigler, 77, works every day to protect her X Diamond Ranch — a working cattle and guest ranch — by establishing firm fire lines.

“So, we knew that we were not going to burn right here because we had thinned the trees, we grazed the land to keep the build up of fuel low and so on, Crigler says. “Most people don’t know this, but when the fire crews came in here … there were probably 50 or 60 fire engines because they knew that this was a safe place to be, because we had made this immediate property safe. So, from the standpoint that people say, ‘Oh, you must have been really scared?’ No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t scared because I felt very safe in what we’d done, and I knew we were going to be safe.”

That said, Crigler was worried about her cattle.

“The good thing about this whole fire was that when it started, it actually started to the east of us, then we had a wind shift and it turned back west,” she says. “So, I had all my herd of livestock grazing up above Greer. When that fire turned back to the west, I realized that they were in imminent danger. … I had a call from the Forest Service, and they said, ‘Wink, you have two hours to gather 300 head of cattle.’ I said, ‘Sorry, honey. I have as long as I need.’”

Crigler, slight but sure, saddled her horse and began making plans in her head. Within 30 minutes, she had another call.

“Fortunately, I have a good rapport with the Forest Service. They said, ‘Wink, you take all the time you need, as long as you’re moving to get them out of the road.’”

So she did. She and her hands gathered all of her livestock and moved it to safer pastures — all but three cows.

“Remarkably enough, though, they got down in this little meadow high up on the mountain,” she remembers. “The fire burned all around them, but they got down in this little meadow and hung out and were as happy as clams.”

When the fire died and the crews had left and the smoke had cleared, Crigler got to work — largely because she was concerned about whether or not the federal government would allow her Angus cows to return to their regular grazing range.

Ultimately, Crigler founded the Ranching Heritage Alliance, a group of ranchers, federal agencies and public interest organizations. Its mission is to improve the sustainability of the landscape, while mitigating philosophical barriers between interested groups.

The alliance launched a range assessment program.

“We started a tracking program so that we could quantitatively and qualitatively document what the recovery requirements were after a fire,” Crigler says. “And we did that on quite a large scale throughout the Wallow Fire area.”

The data the group collected documented range recovery. And that recovery happened quickly.

“In most cases, we were able to get the users back on to those grazing lands. There were some restrictions and some requirements, but it wasn’t just a blanket non-use program, which would have put everybody out of business here. This state has such a private land base that people who are in the production business have to have the capacity to use these lands in order to be able to sustain.”

Today, the studies are ongoing. Crigler — sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot — and her collaborators are particularly interested in studying a native grass, Arizona fescue. It’s a species that’s both productive and dangerous.

“It can smother out other, lesser species,” Crigler says. “Well, after that fire, it gave the lesser species an opportunity to thrive and prosper and be invigorated. So, now, one of the things that we try to do is try to manage that fescue by grazing opportunities.”

The grazing opportunities are paramount. But as Crigler looks to the future, she’s also focused on longevity.

“If there is a determination and a willingness to put forth the effort [to address] most of the challenges that can come up on a landscape, there’s probably a way that you can work through those and build a consensus to work around whatever the issue might be,” she says. “To build consensus to resolve issues, to come up with solutions for whatever the issues might be. What that indicates to me is the functionality of this landscape has a greater opportunity of longevity. And that’s my real goal of it —to make it stay sustainable.”