Close look at conservation area closed by Sawmill Fire - Tucson News Now

Close look at conservation area closed by Sawmill Fire

Las Cienegas National Conservation Area covers approximately 45,000 acres in parts of Pima and Santa Cruz counties.  (Source: KOLD News 13) Las Cienegas National Conservation Area covers approximately 45,000 acres in parts of Pima and Santa Cruz counties. (Source: KOLD News 13)
LAS CIENEGAS NCA, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

The flames are long gone, but an area dedicated to conservation and preservation in southern Arizona remains closed because of the Sawmill Fire.

Las Cienegas National Conservation Area covers approximately 45,000 acres in parts of Pima and Santa Cruz counties. Close to 12,000 of those acres are now charred ground because of the recent wildfire.

"We are going to have to protect the burned area while it's healing," said Karen Simms, a manager of the area for the Bureau of Land Management.

The Sawmill Fire, which started southeast of Green Valley then pushed east through small communities north of Sonoita, closed access to Las Cienegas on Friday, April 28. That also closed off the nearby Empire Ranch, which dates back to the late 1800s.

Simms said it was incredible to see just how close the flames were to the buildings but stopped by the fire crews.

"It represents a really important part of history," she said. "Grass can grow back, trees can grow back, but we can't bring a historic building back."

Besides the historical significance, Empire Ranch set the scene for dozens of Westerns on television and film like 3:10 to Yuma, Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The Empire Ranch Foundation released the following statement: 

"The Empire Ranch Foundation is beyond thankful to the BLM and all the fire crews that worked so diligently to keep the 140 year old, historic Empire Ranch safe from the recent Sawmill Fire.  Even though the land around the ranch was scorched, the buildings remained untouched.  We are happy to say we will continue with our Docent-Led tours twice per month, once we are allowed to enter the property again."  

Surrounding the ranch is an area protected from development. The Bureau of Land Management established Las Cienegas NCA in 2000.

It's been closed since Friday, April 28 and will likely remain closed for the rest of the first week of May. Simms said BLM will survey the more than 18 square miles of burned land and assess what is safe to reopen.

She said the conservation area has always been open to the public, but she anticipates more interest now that so much of it has burned and even more of it was saved.

As of 6 a.m. Tuesday, May 2, the incident management team coordinating the effort against the Sawmill Fire relinquished its leadership role and returned control of the affected areas to their rightful state and federal agencies.

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