Time to Burn

Is the Lone Fire a preview of California-style infernos to come?

But there are also flourishing stands of aspens, pockets of giant oaks, lone fir trees. And within the perimeter of the big burn is an untouched 5,000-acre island that was spared partly by the freakish nature of winds and weather, and partly by the patches that the Forest Service had already burned in earlier years as a preventive measure.

But if the fire's damage is not uniformly terrifying, the fire's intensity was.

"It's something that none of us has ever seen before," says Jeff Whitney, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and expert wildland firefighter. Whitney was flown in from Albuquerque to serve as incident commander for the interagency team that battled the Lone Fire, and he also led the fight against the Rio Fire.

During the last several decades, wildland fires have become more frequent and have gobbled up more and more acreage. And within the last three years, they have increased dramatically in intensity. The Lone Fire and the Rio Fire have been towering conflagrations that many wildland firefighters are calling California-style fires.

That the Lone Fire lighted in April is perhaps most troubling of all. Historically, lightning fires have abounded in Arizona in June and July, in the early weeks of the monsoon. If there have always been frequent fires, at least they occurred at a time of the summer when the relative humidity and the chance of rain were greater. Those fires would have burned at a lower intensity and cleaned out the brush and deadfall on the ground.

By May, 1996 had become the worst year on record for fire danger in Arizona. The Energy Release Component, a measure of moisture in vegetation that basically describes how flammable it is, has already passed the record low set in 1974, and that record was set 40 days later in the summer.

Part of the reason the Rio Fire burned so hotly out of control was because firefighters had to throw manpower and equipment between the flames and north Scottsdale housing developments. And while the firefighters were busy protecting houses, the fire escaped in the other direction into the roadless McDowell Mountains and the county park beyond.

There was some fear that the Lone Fire would race into Punkin Center and threaten homes as well, but it turned out to be unfounded. Ultimately, there were no structures in the way of the Lone Fire other than a microwave-transmitting tower and a cabin owned by the Game and Fish Department.

But if a similar fire had started in similarly thick chaparral below Prescott or Payson and roared up into the forested homesites of those towns, it could have been a major disaster.

And summer hasn't even begun.
"After we just lost 60,000 acres, a lot of us are looking at each other and saying, 'Jesus, what's it going to be like by the end of the year?'" Whitney asks. "Is there going to be anything left to burn?"

Linny Warren wrestles a Forest Service truck up El Oso Road on the northeastern edge of the Lone burn. Every few minutes, a dust devil spins off the black and barren hills.

A wispy gray column rises from an unburned point on the tree line, barely distinguishable at first from the tiny tornadoes.

"That's a smoke over there," he drawls, and he gets on his radio to call for a hotshot crew to track it down and put it out, lest it start the fire back up again.

Warren's round face is edged by his long red sideburns, bisected by a big red mustache. He's acting district ranger for the Tonto Basin Ranger District, a 23-year veteran of the Forest Service, and as such a veteran of just as many years of wildland fires. He served as Jeff Whitney's second in command at the Rio Fire, fought in the initial attack of the Lone Fire, and then slotted right into the interagency team that Whitney brought again from Albuquerque.

Until the fire, this site was choked thick with scrub oak and mountain laurel, manzanita and mountain mahogany, and all the other shrubs that make up chaparral.

The road's name, "El Oso," means "bear," and before the fire it was home to 75 to 100 bears, about one per square mile; most of them probably fled at the first scent of smoke, chased away by Smokey Bear.

"Fire is the number one thing in that ecosystem," Warren says. But much of it hadn't been allowed to burn for 40, 50 years or longer, and so when it finally burned, it burned big.

"We didn't want it to burn that hot, but there wasn't anything we could do about it," Warren continues. "It was going through like a ball of flame. There was hundred-foot-high flames, 200-foot-high flames. It was just rolling in the lower stuff and just ate up the timber that was in the way."

Warren's specialty is in watershed and soil management, and when he pulls over the truck he points out the white patches superimposed on the black ash that show where the fire burned hot enough to sterilize the soil beneath.

One of Tonto National Forest management's concerns was that this intense fire had baked the soil so badly that vegetation would not grow in it. That proved not to be the case. Warren, however, frets that the next big rain will carry ash and soil down into Roosevelt Lake.

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