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.

Rural/Metro VP Bob Edwards dismisses Pickett as a zealot with an agenda to bring down Rural/Metro. There may be some truth in the notion. But Edwards and his captains also dismiss Pickett's wildland fire experience and guffaw (without elaborating) at his handling of the enormous 1993 fire at I-17 and Carefree Highway when Pickett was chief of the Daisy Mountain Fire Department near New River.

Other firefighters have referred to that fire as one of the first big urban/wildland interface fires--just as the Rio was--where neighborhoods and wild or wooded areas back up to each other. It's a relatively new phenomenon.

Historically, as pioneers pushed into the wilderness, they cut down the native plants and cut fields and pastures and planted lawns that served as firebreaks around their houses. Today's more environmentally conscious homeowners want to live right in among the native flora, and whether those homes are in the woods or the desert, there are no more firebreaks and nowhere to cut them to take a stand against the fire.

The fire plans drawn up by Rural/Metro for desert developments, in this vein, focus on how to protect houses from desert fire, and not how to protect the desert itself. And if those plans talk about the abundance of non-native grasses that spring up after wet springs and then burn so brightly in summer, they also mention that once upon a time, such grass problems were taken care of by cattle grazing. Grazing is one major reason there is so much grass in the first place.

"Let me ask you a philosophical question," Edwards starts. "Should a city have their fire department built to handle that hundred-year fire or the manpower to deal with a major fire in its suppression form? Or should it make sure that the builders and developers are required to put in private fire protection?"
By that, he means fire sprinkler systems installed in all new dwellings, as dictated by Scottsdale's fire code.

But is the Rio a "hundred-year fire," a once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster? Perhaps not. The fuel load depends on the winter rains--but when there are houses in the way, they are more difficult to fight.

In 1992, there were two 2,500-acre fires in the same general area, one of them referred to locally as the "Troon Fire." The other fire had some urban interface situations, but the report Rural/Metro sent to the City of Scottsdale concluded that, "While devastating when considering the damage to our desert, it is to the credit of all the agencies involved as well as some of the homeowners that no homes were destroyed."

Firefighting culture dictates that a firefighter's priorities are to save lives first and property second. Scenic landscape comes a distant third--unlike Australia, where the firefighters attack the fire with all their resources with the logic that the sooner the fire was put out, the more property would be saved, even if a few houses were lost in the process.

"Part of the problem with this approach is our legal system," says Stephen J. Pyne, an ASU West professor who is the world's foremost authority on the history of wildland fires. "You can imagine the TV cameras rolling as the firefighters say, 'No, we're not going to do anything,' and here's this family with the house and dog in the path of the fire."
It would make for terrible publicity.
"There is no reward for attacking the fire," Pyne concludes.

In a choice between taking a stand against the fire and lessening the overall loss, even if it means sacrificing some property, and saving a single house, even if it means letting the fire escape, firefighters would save the house. And in the Rio fire, it was almost carried to absurdity.

News reports crowed that the firefighters had saved the park buildings in McDowell Mountain Park--even if there is no more park to speak of.

There was at least one brief deviation on the Rio fire, however, when houses were deemed less important than someone else's scenic view.

On Saturday afternoon, July 8, Pat Goldhahn, a U.S. Forest Service firefighting pilot from Missoula, Montana, was flying her second shift as "lead plane," using her small plane to guide the big air tankers into the fire to drop their slurry loads.

The fire was burning down a mountain toward one of the Troon-area developments a quarter-mile away, and Goldhahn was directing a line of slurry to cut it off. She was low enough to see what was happening on the ground.

"People were standing in the road with shovels in their hands going to defend their houses," Goldhahn recalls, "so I started putting tankers in on that north side to try and get a line of retardant in on the northwest corner."
She was interrupted by a call from the pilot of the "air attack" plane, which is an in-air coordinator for the air attack on the fire. The air attack pilot gets his orders from the Incident Commander (IC, for short) on the ground. The message brought her up shorter than a sharp pull on the joystick.

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