Time to Burn

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

"We're just fighting fires in the California conditions," says Linny Warren, "which are just extreme. We're going to have fires like the Dude Fire that took out homes, because people built homes in that country. They can't fire-safe them, and we can't stop the fires. If they get a good start, they're gonna roll."

And they will roll over whatever is in the way.
Fire experts worry about the wildland/urban interface, that point where houses and forest or desert come together. Firefighting always involves juggling resources, and when it comes to a choice of attacking a fire and defending houses, the firefighters choose the houses, as happened in the Rio Fire.

"We dodged a bullet [at the Rio Fire]," says Jeff Whitney, who was incident commander on that fire. "It could have come into Rio Verde, it could have come into Fountain Hills. It came into north Scottsdale, but with tile roofs and stucco [and mandated sprinkler systems], those people built exactly the type of house you need to withstand a fire."

But the houses feathered into the trees of Prescott and Payson and other forest communities frighten Whitney.

"Wood houses with shake roofs, trees right up to the windows, brush right up to the decks on these steep slopes! I mean, geez . . . !"

These are the kinds of houses that Stephen Pyne describes as being built of forest materials, and consequently they burn like forests.

"You could take that Lone Fire and overlay it on the Prescott basin and we would probably be just as challenged or more so to slow or stop that fire," Whitney says. "And what you've got is thousands and thousands of people in harm's way. That whole Prescott basin area is just rife with forest homes, and the roads are typically single-lane. You get somebody come out of there and panic and run into a tree, block the exit, and you've got a lot of people at risk."

And those more rural areas do not have the considerable equipment and manpower of Phoenix Fire Department and Rural/Metro to throw between the flames and the houses.

"If you look at Payson, if you look at Show Low, Snowflake, Pinetop, any one of those communities is sitting on the edge and very close to the brink of disaster," Whitney continues, tension building in his voice. "The Ventura fire two years ago, the Malibu fire, the Oakland fire. They're all indications that, guys, we've moved out into the wild setting because it is so aesthetically attractive. And what we've done is we've put ourselves at risk."

If the monsoon comes this summer, the fires could come all at once.
"All that needs to happen this season is one of those dry lightning storms that are common under these kinds of conditions, and all hell breaks loose," adds NAU professor Wally Covington. "We could have 30 or 40 fires going simultaneously, and then all of the resources are going to have to be directed to protect the cities. The endangered-species habitat that we have, they're just going to have to let it go."

Up in the Flagstaff area, forest rangers have written so many citations to campers and tourists violating the forest closures that they've run out of ticket books.

And the people who live in the forests are afraid to leave their homes in case the fires come. They're praying for an early monsoon, but fearful of the lightning it may bring.

"We're under siege," says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club, who lives on the edge of the national forest just outside Flagstaff. "I feel like we're in jail. We can't go anywhere; the woods are closed. I have to run a gauntlet [of rangers] just to get up my road.

"And there is a lot of fear for everyone who lives near the woods.

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