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.

At six o'clock on that evening, Rural/Metro turned over the command of the fire to Jeff Whitney of the Central Arizona Interagency team, a strike force composed of state and federal firefighting agencies.

When the Rio fire crossed out of Scottsdale through BLM land and raced into McDowell Mountain Park, Rural/Metro changed roles, as well. It had fulfilled its obligation for fighting fires within Scottsdale's boundaries. Now it was on the clock, firefighting for hire.

As of this writing, Rural/Metro had not yet sent a bill to the State Land Department, which will collect the costs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but fire officials there were expecting something in the neighborhood of $30,000.

The fire burned through Sunday and into Monday before it finally burned itself out. By Tuesday there was nothing left but a few glowing hot spots--and 36 square miles of ash.

There were no houses lost.
Ironically, even though the Troon area property is valuable, especially because of its scenic setting in the desert, and even if the Rio fire is the worst fire in the history of Maricopa County, the 23,000 devastated acres don't count as "loss" as far as fire loss statistics are concerned.

After the blaze, Rural/Metro Corporation printed up tee shirts for all the firefighters who fought it, commemorating the big blaze with a dramatic image of an air tanker dropping a pink slurry load. At the bottom of the design is a blocky picture of a house inside a red circle with a diagonal slash. The message: "No houses lost."

The shirt also lists the equipment and fire departments that responded.
At the height of the Rio fire, there were 459 men and women battling the blaze--pilots, hotshot crews, support people from numerous municipal fire departments, as well as state and federal agency personnel from as far away as Idaho Falls. "The Rural/Metro approach is to get 400 people there within a day or two," says Pat Cantelme, president of the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, and a longtime critic of nonunion Rural/Metro. "It doesn't matter how many people you get there after the fire is 20 or 30 feet in the air, it matters how many people you get there in 20 minutes."

If the fire had started in Peoria under similar conditions--heavy fuel and heavy winds--that municipality would have immediately sent two fire engines with three or four men each, four brush trucks, a water tender, two battalion chiefs, and a DPS helicopter to fly reconnaissance.

If it had started in Phoenix, it would have raised two engines, two brush trucks, a water tender, a battalion chief and a helicopter, as well, and if, on the way to the fire, they got more calls, they would throw even more at it immediately. In fact, Phoenix had thrown one engine, five brush trucks, a water tender and 14 men at this fire.

Rural/Metro sent two brush trucks and an engine and eight men in its initial attack--though they did upgrade and had three more brush trucks at the blaze within 30 minutes. They left their water tender, a rolling water tank, essentially, at the station, because, as DiBennedetto explains, you don't fight brush fires as much with water as with backfires and hand crews and air drops. And Robert Edwards, the Rural/Metro vice president, is quick to point out that all Rural/Metro firefighters have "red cards," the wildland firefighting certification given by the U.S. Forest Service.

But it wasn't just a wildland fire. There were houses around. Experience told the Rural/Metro crew that it had to back down from the fire, turn and protect the nearest housing developments--and the fire got bigger.

Scott Hunt, who is in charge of the State Land Department's firefighting, says, "It got up to about 1,200 acres in the first hour. We just had dry, nasty weather conditions and a shortage of resources because there were a lot of other fires going on in the state. It escaped the initial attack. The resources that went there couldn't put out the fire. They had to go protect houses."

But Cantelme thinks they put too little on the fire in the first minutes and then gave up too quickly.

"If they had had the manpower or they had shifted the manpower and started a back burn along Dynamite, it appears to me that's where the fire would have stopped," he says. "They take a stand at the house because the house is a fixed point. You need to put more resources earlier and you need to take a different approach, which more resources would allow you to do."
George Pickett, who has been a firefighter for 28 years--chief of two west Valley departments and vice president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association--agrees. "You attack a brush fire from the flank," he says. "You don't wait for the fire to come to you because it'll roll right past you. Why didn't they take a stand closer up and make this fire 2,000 acres instead of 20,000?"

"If we had an air tanker on top of us, we could not stop this fire," insists DiBennedetto.

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