An unusually disruptive and progressively more destructive fire season has Sonoita-area residents feeling anxious, weary, and as illustrated by the “let it rain” plea displayed recently on the marquee at the Sonoita Fairgrounds, eager for a monsoon soaking.
“Everybody is full of fear. Everybody’s afraid,” said Bernie Reindl, a 64-year-old cashier at the Sonoita Mini Market who, as the result of the fast-moving Encino Fire, had to evacuate her home on Los Encinos Road last week for the first time since she moved to the area in 1976.
“A lot of us don’t even want to leave our homes because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.
The market’s owner, 49-year-old Alan Pallanes, said whenever he hears about a new fire this season, he asks, “Who’s it going to hit next?” while hoping it’s not going to burn somebody’s home down.
“Hopefully we’ll get some rain,” he said.
The first big test for the community this year came in late April when the human-caused Sawmill Fire burned 47,000 acres just north of the county line, closing State Route 83 for several days, disrupting power and communications and forcing numerous evacuations – though no home losses – in Pima and Santa Cruz counties. Though not the epicenter of the fire itself, Sonoita and the fairgrounds served as a focal point for the effort to shelter and aid evacuees.
The 780-acre, human-caused Kellogg Fire, however, roared dangerously close to town, igniting in grasslands behind the fairgrounds on June 1 and quickly blowing across SR 83, prompting evacuations and destroying the outbuildings of four families.
Then on June 20, lightning strikes ignited the fast-moving Encino Fire in a residential area just south of the crossroads of State Routes 82 and 83, destroying five homes, damaging numerous others and wiping out outbuildings, vehicles, gardens and other infrastructure. It was the first time in eight years that a wildfire burned homes in the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District, according to Chief Joseph DeWolf, and the ninth or 10th blaze of a 2017 season defined by large fires and fast winds.
“We’ve not had fires like this in a long time … with the speed of the wind that we’ve had,” DeWolf said, adding that the fires are growing larger than usual.
Molly Anderson, a 62-year-old physician whose home was heavily damaged in the Encino Fire, also noted a troubling trend after she was evacuated last Wednesday.
“(The fires have) been progressively more nerve-wracking every year,” she said.
Beverly Parker, another Encino Fire evacuee whose guest house was badly damaged, said she experienced mixed emotions during fires earlier in the season.
“‘Thank God it wasn’t me,’ but, ‘Oh God, it was X, Y or Z,’” she said of her thought process, adding last Wednesday: “This time it’s me.”
“We live out here and this is the price we pay,” Parker said.
Despite their anxieties, local residents also expressed gratitude that they live in such a supportive community.
Speaking Friday from her cashier’s post at the Sonoita Mini Market, a shop where a sign on the door offers select free goods to fire evacuees, Reindl expressed appreciation that hers is a community where “everybody has pitched in to help … whether it’s with money, food, whatever.”
Ted White, a 35-year-old jack-of-all-trades who has lived in the Sonoita area for 18 years, praised local and out-of-town firefighters, as well as the fairgrounds for hosting evacuated people and animals, and his neighbors for working together during this “more extensive” fire season.
“Everybody as a community kind of helps out,” he said.
As for help from the monsoon season that officially began June 15, the National Weather Service in Tucson was forecasting a 20-percent chance of scattered thunderstorms in the Sonoita area Monday afternoon and evening, but dry conditions through the rest of the week and a 10-20 percent chance of isolated showers over the weekend.