THE SOURING INFERNO

LAST MONTH, THE RURAL/METRO FIRE DEPARTMENT BATTLED THE 23,000-ACRE RIO BLAZE. BUT AFTER THE FIRE WAS OUT, THE COMPANY STILL HADN'T COOLED ITS CRITICS.

The critics are also quick to point out that Rural/Metro does not have the same cooperative agreements with its neighbors as do the municipal departments. Partly because of how Rural/Metro staffs its trucks and firehouses and how it dispatches its fire companies, and partly because of the running distrust from neighboring fire departments, Scottsdale does not participate in the automatic aid agreement in place among the other Valley departments. Automatic aid means that a fire truck from any city can be immediately dispatched to your house in an emergency with no regard for political boundaries. Rural/Metro has to call over the telephone for back-up from fire departments outside the Rural/Metro system, which takes time.

"Their system is inferior to the rest of the Valley. . . . Their communications are inferior," says George Pickett, who, as vice president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, is a longtime firefighter and longtime crusader against Rural/Metro. "As a citizen of Scottsdale, I'm concerned about what I see."
Rural/Metro claims its for-profit operation makes it more efficient, more motivated than union-shop departments. But even some of its own present and former firefighters say that the profit motive gets in the way of lifesaving. The Rio fire brought another paycheck. While the press lauded Rural/Metro's efforts in seeing that no homes were destroyed, according to another firefighter, Rural/Metro fire captains were bragging that the company had made money on the fire.

Meanwhile, the threat of big fires increases with the profligate growth of development, especially in those years when a wet spring chokes the desert with grass and brush that dries to tinder in the summer heat. The July 7 fire was originally called the "Troon" fire, after the tony community it threatened. But three years ago, there had already been a major Troon fire just down the road, and so they renamed this one for Rio Verde Drive, where it started. That they are already scrambling for fire names indicates the size of the desert fire threat. "I've been wracked with this since the fire," says Lou Jekel, the wildland fire chief for Rural/Metro. "We all knew something like this could happen, and it was worse than we expected."

According to the official Rural/Metro version of the fire's first hour, Captain Al DiBennedetto and firefighter B.J. Pullman pulled up to the fire scene in DiBennedetto's command pickup truck seven minutes after the 911 call.

"There were about seven or eight acres burning," says DiBennedetto, "with pretty erratic winds, and we had a thunderhead over the top of us."
A brush truck was hot on DiBennedetto's tail, and headed to the west side of the fire, driving up a dirt road looking for a way into the flames. The fire was still 250 yards from Dynamite Road, and the firefighters thought they could set a backfire to consume all the combustible fuel between the road and the fire so that it would burn out.

But then, DiBennedetto says, "The fire blew up."
A microburst--a sudden intense gust of wind--shot downward from the thunderhead, ricocheted down a mountain and fanned the flames.

"It was coming at us from every direction at the same time," Pullman says. "We had about 30 seconds to get out of there."
The fire exploded from seven to 50 acres in a heartbeat, Pullman says, and to 100 acres within 15 minutes, and then blew over Dynamite Road. It was 6:21 p.m.

DiBennedetto called for structural engines to be routed toward the nearest housing developments.

"As soon as it crossed Dynamite, we knew it was going to be in the houses," he says.

Rural/Metro had not put a reconnaissance helicopter in the air over the fire, but it did manage to raise a TV news chopper on the radio and hitch a ride. Fire engines were bumper to bumper along Dynamite by this time.

At 6:30 p.m., Rural/Metro dispatchers called for air tankers and back-up from other fire departments and retreated to the nearest houses to protect them from the growing conflagration. By then an enormous column of black smoke could be seen from nearly everywhere in the Valley.

Around 7 p.m., the Phoenix Fire Department received a phone call from the State Land Department, asking for assistance. By 7:09 p.m., Phoenix had five brush trucks, an engine, a tender, and 14 men, including a battalion chief, on the road. The first of the trucks was on the scene within 14 minutes, but the situation was already hopeless.

Don Hilderbrant, the Phoenix battalion chief, led his contingent down Rio Verde Drive with flames on both sides of the road, at times arcing over the top of them, as if they were driving through a tunnel of fire. They pulled down 128th Street to defend the houses at the end of a cul-de-sac, and they stayed into the night, until their water ran out.

Four air tankers, some of them diverted from other fires, dribbled in, one at 7 p.m., two at 7:30, one at 8, with only enough time to drop one load each of the pink fire retardant that firefighters call "slurry." The planes were back on the job by 7 a.m. Saturday, hoping to pinch off the fire for good in the early morning hours while humidity is highest and fires lie down to rest. The flames were then languishing high up in the McDowell Mountains, but the winds shifted too frequently to cut off the fire, and as the solar radiation picked up, the fire was running again, this time toward the southeast and McDowell Mountain Park.

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