By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Peggy Rogers noticed the smoke when she was driving home from the supermarket with her daughter. It was just after lunch on June 10, a hot and dry Thursday in Fountain Hills. The smoke was coming from the west along Shea Boulevard, and so she turned the car in that direction to have a look.
The fire was raging in the hills just north of the scenic overlook on Shea, as beautiful a tract of Arizona desert as could be found anywhere. But the saguaros and long vistas were turning black beneath the advancing V of a grass fire. Firefighting planes were already dropping slurry, a thick, pink, flame-smothering liquid, and helicopters hovered overhead to dump the contents of their water bags.
Rogers turned her car around and saw an even larger column of smoke coming from the direction of her house, which backs up to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community along the Beeline Highway in a subdivision called Firerock Estates. She raced home.
From her backyard, the fire still seemed far away; Rogers and her daughter's boyfriend climbed the ridge directly behind the house. "We wanted to see which side of the Beeline it was on," she recalls, "and we hoped it would be the other side." Both sides were burning, though the fire looked far enough away. Since the air tankers were already at work, Rogers assumed it was under control. Then the wind shifted.
Fire travels more quickly uphill than down or on flat ground. The first flames licked the grass at the bottom of the hill, then raced up at Rogers. She could feel the hot winds the fire pushed in front of itself swooping toward her.
"It was instant," she says with terror still in her voice. By the time she had run the 60 yards down the other side of the hill to her house, the fire had crested the ridge, the entire skyline hidden behind a 40-foot-tall wall of flame.
The doorbell rang; the police were evacuating the neighborhood. A Rural/Metro fire truck had pulled up in front of the house and a single firefighter with a shovel jumped out.
"There was smoke already in the backyard," Rogers says. "I wondered what on earth he was going to do--one man with one shovel."
Rogers' daughter Heather tried to call her father, Larry, from a telephone in the garage. The operator at her father's place of business put her on hold. She looked out the window and saw that the fire had crossed the barbed-wire fence that marks the reservation boundary and was burning the grass ten feet from where she stood. She dropped the telephone receiver and ran.
The residents of Firerock Estates gathered on Shea Boulevard, anxiously watching the air show. Miraculously, not a single house had been touched by the fire. By dinnertime, the flames were out and the residents were allowed to return to their homes; the char came to the back doors of at least nine, and the backyards were still smoking and smoldering.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs named the blaze the McDowell Pass fire. It laid waste more than 1,200 acres along the Beeline and another 120 on Shea Boulevard. It had taken more than 150 firefighters from across the state to put it out, two planes that dumped 3,000 pounds of slurry and two helicopters that made more than 600 water drops in six hours. The cost to taxpayers was more than $50,000 for a day's work, not counting the cost of the air tankers.
But that was not the end of the destruction. Nineteen days later, on June 29, Larry Rogers was in his garage tinkering with his antique cars when the telephone rang. It was his real estate agent, wondering what was going on over in his neighborhood. "Look out the back window," she said.
Once again, black smoke was billowing from the direction of the Beeline. So Rogers climbed the scorched hilltop behind the house in time to see a wall of flames flash hundreds of feet up the face of Red Mountain, a mile to the east, and he watched the air tankers swoop down into the conflagration to let loose their slurry loads.
Two fires had started south of the earlier burn and were racing northward toward the Verde River. By day's end, the Double Trouble fire, as Rural/Metro firefighters named it, had destroyed another 3,200 acres of scenic desert, at a cost of $56,597 and priceless miles of vegetation.
The similarities to the first set of fires were too striking to be coincidental. And they weren't. Someone wanted to see the desert burn. That someone was not alone.
All over the state, arsonists have turned this summer into the worst fire year in memory, taking advantage of the lush desert grasses that sprang up with January's record rainfall, double the normal fuel load, now dried to tinder and waiting for a spark.
There have already been more than 7,000 brush fires in the state of Arizona since January. In the month of June, firefighters in Phoenix alone were answering as many as 33 brush-fire calls a day. On June 10, the day of the McDowell Pass fire, there were two other major desert fires that burned more than 4,000 acres, and 20 minor fires, which pushed the Valley's firefighting capabilities to the maximum. The overwhelming majority of the fires were human-caused. No one really knows for sure how many were arson, because wildfire arson is a difficult crime to prove, and a harder crime to prosecute. There is seldom any clear-cut motive, as when someone burns down a building for revenge or insurance money. In a structure fire, investigators examine a small, contained area looking for accelerants and other evidence. But a desert fire can cover miles, and all it takes to start it is a single match or a cigarette lighter slipped back into a pocket.