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 showed up later, but still sent the fireworks company a bill for $38,000, and sued when it refused to pay.

John Dooley, a former Rural/Metro firefighter who was stationed in Fountain Hills until 1993, claims that Rural/Metro's profit motive was so strong that when he went out in a one-man fire truck to brush fires on the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation, he would be told to let the fire burn until the wildland crew got there. Then Rural/Metro could send an additional bill to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

It could take an hour to assemble the wildland crew, and in at least one instance that the firefighter recalls, the blaze got out of hand.

"There was a fire on the reservation, and I was the first on the scene," Dooley says. "I felt I could have put it out, I felt I could have knocked down the fire before it got to the heavy fuel, and I was told to back down. And I did. They bring out the crew--I mean, what do they have to lose if they let the desert burn on the reservation? As long as no houses burn, it's not bad publicity for Rural/Metro.

"The thing burned all night and all the next day. My opinion was they didn't really want to put the fire out. They wanted us to go and protect the houses and they could make money bringing out the brush team.

"It frustrated me, because here comes the fire truck with the lights and sirens and people think that it's going to get better now that the fire department's here. In reality, we'd go out and sit, protect their homes and watch the desert burn."
Lou Jekel, the Rural/Metro wildland fire chief, denies that letting fires burn is company practice. "I can't say it didn't happen, but it shouldn't," he says.

The whole nation watched some of the world's most breathtaking desert burn on July 7. The cost of fighting the fire, according to one official at the State Land Department, may exceed $2 million. The cost to the desert is immeasurable.

Certainly, the scorched private lands that are platted for development can be bladed clean by bulldozers and replanted in Disney Desert style. The Californian retirees and the wealthy Midwesterners who maintain second homes in the area so that they can play golf for two weeks each spring will never notice the difference. Another silver lining: There's an apocryphal story circulating that in areas slated for high-density housing, the developers have now been spared the costly and bothersome task of transplanting environmentally sensitive plants before they scrape out lots.

McDowell Mountain Park, which was a haven for bird watchers and for mountain bikers chased off the Pinnacle Peak trails when they were plowed under for a golf course, and a tourist attraction for out-of-state spring campers, took a direct hit. What wasn't destroyed by the natural cataclysm was burned by the backfires set by firefighters to contain the big blaze.

Rural/Metro was praised everywhere in the media and lauded in the Scottsdale City Council for its heroic efforts. With characteristic lack of modesty, Rural/Metro had prepared its own videotape with clips from the fire, dramatically set to the theme song from the film Top Gun.

Most folks buy the story, though a few Scottsdale residents thought the firefighters protested too much.

"They've put such a spin on the fact that they protected 300 houses," says community activist Hannah Goldstein. "There must be a reason they're doing all this celebrating when they're being paid to do their jobs."
Meanwhile, the bottom line on fire protection is that there's a four-man firehouse at Pima and Jomax covering all of north Scottsdale.

There are hundreds of new houses going up, galloping farther and farther into the desert.

The Rio fire may have a sequel.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
All
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...