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Heading into wildfire season, Sierra Vista reflects on destructive 2011 blaze

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SIERRA VISTA – Beatty’s Guest Ranch once had a lush apple orchard that provided fruit to sell as well as a home for the many hummingbirds that call the Huachuca Mountains home.

Today, most of those trees are gone along with the green in the surrounding landscape, and much of the property is covered with landslide debris.

The damage is left over from the 2011 Monument Fire, which devastated about 38,000 acres and destroyed or damaged dozens of structures in the Huachucas and on the fringes of Sierra Vista. Nearly four years later, the Beattys and others here continue to deal with its aftermath and use lessons learned in hopes of preventing or minimizing damage from wildfires.

Beatty’s Guest Ranch, which offers cabins frequented by photographers and those taking to take in the serene views, survived the fire without damage to structures. But it didn’t escape subsequent floods and landslides that filled one cabin 5 feet deep with gravel and severely damaged its interior in addition to severely damaging the apple orchard.

On a recent weekday, Tom Beatty Jr., who manages the ranch, was out with a tractor, working to get the landscape back to the way it was.

“Well, we sell apples when we get our trees back,” Beatty said. “We only have about 100 adult trees left after the flooding and the fires. It just took off when the winds came up, it rushed up the hills really fast. It burned out a lot of people’s houses. Mostly people that got burned probably didn’t have as much defensible space that we have here.”

Some trees that survived the fire were carefully planted with enough space between them. That probably saved the ranch from even further damage and allowed Beatty and his father to defend their property.

“Me and my dad stayed here and we kept these buildings from burning by putting out the spot fires with buckets,” Beatty said. “So we just ran around with buckets. It was easy to fight.”

Despite the damage, the ranch remains relatively intact, and the precautions taken by the Beattys to prepare for fires mirror what area fire officials hope to achieve around the community.

Kendal Wilson, fire management officer for the Sierra Vista Ranger District, said the most important takeaways from the Monument Fire were the need for education and for collaboration among agencies and neighbors.

“We can’t take care of it for you; you have to take care of your own property,” Wilson said. “As a homeowner, I’m out there cleaning around my property, I’m making my own fire breaks and my neighbor is doing the same.”

Wilson and other officials, like Paul Cimino, fire marshal for the city of Sierra Vista, are working on keeping disasters like this from happening again as the city heads into wildfire season with dry conditions.

“That fire almost disintegrated our town,” he said. “It started up in the mountains and swept through the whole mountain area and took out a lot of our rural area. It really put us to the test as to how we would react in that type of situation.”

Cimino said that the disaster left this community stronger and wiser, though, by making people more conscious of the dangers associated with wildfires.

“It’s not just a single effort when it comes to taking care of us,” he said. “Since then, people have been taking a second guess at whether they need to be grilling or open-burning. It was a lesson learned for us. We cannot overemphasize how we need to be proactive in this.”

Cimino said that when a wildfire starts, within minutes, even seconds, it can change. Many people, he said, still have many possessions packed up from the Monument Fire.

“They’re saying, ‘These are things we normally would put on a wall, but in the event something should happen, we have them still packed so we can get out quick,’” he said.

As the town heads into wildfire season, Cimino said he hopes it will be another year of improvement. He said his department is putting a stop to residential open-burning and even putting a restriction on fireworks use. They are also advocating for safetyand preparedness, especially in areas at the edge of town.

“We are talking with folks about how to clear their land and get ready for this very dry season,” Cimino said. “Sometimes it takes door-to-door contact, and we are prepared to do that. It just takes one spark to change what’s happening here, and our conditions right now are very tender.”

At Beatty’s Guest Ranch, the hummingbird numbers remain low, but a bloom among surviving apple trees means hope for the little creatures, and for the ranch itself.

“By the creek in our little oasis here, we didn’t lose any trees,” Beatty said. “They definitely had nests in all of those trees.”