BURNING QUESTIONSWHY WOULD ANYONE SET FIRE TO ARIZONA'S SCENIC LANDSCAPE?
Peggy Rogers noticed the smoke when she was driving home from the supermarket with her daughter. It was just after lunch on June 10, a hot and dry Thursday in Fountain Hills. The smoke was coming from the west along Shea Boulevard, and so she turned the car in that direction to have a look.
The fire was raging in the hills just north of the scenic overlook on Shea, as beautiful a tract of Arizona desert as could be found anywhere. But the saguaros and long vistas were turning black beneath the advancing V of a grass fire. Firefighting planes were already dropping slurry, a thick, pink, flame-smothering liquid, and helicopters hovered overhead to dump the contents of their water bags.
Rogers turned her car around and saw an even larger column of smoke coming from the direction of her house, which backs up to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community along the Beeline Highway in a subdivision called Firerock Estates. She raced home.
From her backyard, the fire still seemed far away; Rogers and her daughter's boyfriend climbed the ridge directly behind the house. "We wanted to see which side of the Beeline it was on," she recalls, "and we hoped it would be the other side." Both sides were burning, though the fire looked far enough away. Since the air tankers were already at work, Rogers assumed it was under control. Then the wind shifted.
Fire travels more quickly uphill than down or on flat ground. The first flames licked the grass at the bottom of the hill, then raced up at Rogers. She could feel the hot winds the fire pushed in front of itself swooping toward her.
"It was instant," she says with terror still in her voice. By the time she had run the 60 yards down the other side of the hill to her house, the fire had crested the ridge, the entire skyline hidden behind a 40-foot-tall wall of flame.
The doorbell rang; the police were evacuating the neighborhood. A Rural/Metro fire truck had pulled up in front of the house and a single firefighter with a shovel jumped out.
"There was smoke already in the backyard," Rogers says. "I wondered what on earth he was going to do--one man with one shovel."
Rogers' daughter Heather tried to call her father, Larry, from a telephone in the garage. The operator at her father's place of business put her on hold. She looked out the window and saw that the fire had crossed the barbed-wire fence that marks the reservation boundary and was burning the grass ten feet from where she stood. She dropped the telephone receiver and ran.
The residents of Firerock Estates gathered on Shea Boulevard, anxiously watching the air show. Miraculously, not a single house had been touched by the fire. By dinnertime, the flames were out and the residents were allowed to return to their homes; the char came to the back doors of at least nine, and the backyards were still smoking and smoldering.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs named the blaze the McDowell Pass fire. It laid waste more than 1,200 acres along the Beeline and another 120 on Shea Boulevard. It had taken more than 150 firefighters from across the state to put it out, two planes that dumped 3,000 pounds of slurry and two helicopters that made more than 600 water drops in six hours. The cost to taxpayers was more than $50,000 for a day's work, not counting the cost of the air tankers.
But that was not the end of the destruction. Nineteen days later, on June 29, Larry Rogers was in his garage tinkering with his antique cars when the telephone rang. It was his real estate agent, wondering what was going on over in his neighborhood. "Look out the back window," she said.
Once again, black smoke was billowing from the direction of the Beeline. So Rogers climbed the scorched hilltop behind the house in time to see a wall of flames flash hundreds of feet up the face of Red Mountain, a mile to the east, and he watched the air tankers swoop down into the conflagration to let loose their slurry loads.
Two fires had started south of the earlier burn and were racing northward toward the Verde River. By day's end, the Double Trouble fire, as Rural/Metro firefighters named it, had destroyed another 3,200 acres of scenic desert, at a cost of $56,597 and priceless miles of vegetation.
The similarities to the first set of fires were too striking to be coincidental. And they weren't. Someone wanted to see the desert burn. That someone was not alone.
All over the state, arsonists have turned this summer into the worst fire year in memory, taking advantage of the lush desert grasses that sprang up with January's record rainfall, double the normal fuel load, now dried to tinder and waiting for a spark.
There have already been more than 7,000 brush fires in the state of Arizona since January. In the month of June, firefighters in Phoenix alone were answering as many as 33 brush-fire calls a day. On June 10, the day of the McDowell Pass fire, there were two other major desert fires that burned more than 4,000 acres, and 20 minor fires, which pushed the Valley's firefighting capabilities to the maximum. The overwhelming majority of the fires were human-caused. No one really knows for sure how many were arson, because wildfire arson is a difficult crime to prove, and a harder crime to prosecute. There is seldom any clear-cut motive, as when someone burns down a building for revenge or insurance money. In a structure fire, investigators examine a small, contained area looking for accelerants and other evidence. But a desert fire can cover miles, and all it takes to start it is a single match or a cigarette lighter slipped back into a pocket.
The McDowell Pass and Double Trouble fires were deemed arson because they followed a pattern. They started in early afternoon, when burning conditions are best, and each was really two fires set within half an hour of each other. They started 300 to 400 feet off the road so that they would be relatively inaccessible to firefighting equipment, and they started in drainages where they would burn quickly. "We call em 'chimneys,'" says Don Johnston, the Rural/Metro fire captain who coordinated the fight against the fires. "And you know what a chimney does. It causes a draw."
Similarities are not evidence, however, and so the firebug responsible may never be caught. Most of the investigators New Times spoke to had never caught a wildfire arsonist. Nor can they stop them, given the vastness of the countryside.
"They've got everything going for them," says Special Agent Bud Shaver of the Forest Service. "They're in a remote area. We're not there. It takes somebody being in the right place at the right time, not just law enforcement, but a citizen who observes something."
Catching arsonists, then, becomes an exercise in futility. "Right or wrong, sometimes it becomes the dollar amount of how much can be put into it," says Ron Pope in the State Fire Marshal's Office. Which leaves the desert free to burn. This summer it has burned. And once burned, it can take 100 years to recover--if it can recover at all.
@body:As testament to a nightmare fire season, charred acres of boiled white barrel cactus and blackened paloverde branches scar the most scenic stretches of the Beeline Highway from Mesa to Sunflower and the Black Canyon Freeway from Phoenix to Sunset Point.
By the end of August, the City of Phoenix had recorded 2,902 tree, grass and brush fires, almost 1,000 more than last year at this time and 1,300 more than in 1990. Division Chief Joe Bushong of the Phoenix Fire Department estimates that 85 percent of those fires are human-caused. Of more than 4,200 fires on state and federal lands in Arizona in that same time period, 3,300 were judged to be human-caused and the rest caused by lightning.
Most times, if the desert burns, someone has made it burn, because lightning is the only natural cause of fire in the Southwest and lightning tends to strike at higher altitudes. Ponderosa pine forest and even chaparral are "fire communities," environments where wildfire plays a role in ecology.
However, "Sonoran desert doesn't have any business burning," as one Forest Service ecologist put it. It evolved without fire. Knowing that the fires were caused by carelessness or stupidity--or outright malice--makes it all the more painful to watch the miles of blackened bushes fly past on the way to Payson or Flagstaff.
Which were accidents and which were arson is anyone's guess. The fire in the median could be from a cigarette butt tossed out the window. Maybe a brakeshoe dropped from the wheel of a passing car, bounced into the grass and smoldered a while. Maybe a chain fell loose from a towed trailer and set off a trail of sparks as it dragged behind. If it landed in the right spot, if the dew point was low enough, the grass dry enough, it could set off a flash, then race through the heavy grass.
But what of the fire that starts ten yards off the road and can't be blamed on a passing vehicle? Investigators term a fire "suspicious" only when they can't explain it away with a cigarette butt or campfire ring; they call it arson in the rare event that they find an incendiary device or have an eyewitness account, or can stack circumstantial evidence.
"If a fire starts in the middle of the desert at the side of the road at 1:30 in the morning five times out of eight days, it's arson," says Don Johnston, the Rural/Metro fire captain. He had five such fires at the end of June in Scottsdale. Still, there was no saying who set them. The fires stopped as mysteriously as they had begun, and there were no clues left behind.
Even under outrageous circumstances, firefighters are hesitant to declare arson. On May 3, the Daisy Mountain Fire Department in the northwest Valley arrived at a wildfire on Carefree Highway at 12th Avenue. As they fought the fire, someone shot out the windshield of one of their trucks, nearly striking a fire captain. "I pulled my people out, and the fire got bigger," says Daisy Mountain Fire Chief George Pickett. Whoever fired the shots may also have started the fire, accidentally or on purpose. But there was no evidence of any sort. Helicopters scoured the area after the assault, but they never found the assailant. Pickett could only conclude, "Probably some asshole had a couple too many beers on the shooting range nearby and took his high-powered rifle and shot at my captain."
Other instances of arson are more obvious. On June 29, Dave Behrens, a fire management officer with the State Land Department, found two incendiary devices at the center of two fires just southwest of the intersection with Carefree Highway in a remote area called Biscuit Flats. Someone had set wooden matches next to lighted cigarettes as a primitive fuse. The arsonist would then have a few minutes to get away before the cigarettes burned down to ignite the matches and make a flash hot enough to set off a field of grass. But that only proved that the fire had been set--it gave no insights into who set it and why.
On July 21, there were six separate fires on South Mountain, some brazenly set after firefighters were already battling the first of them. Afterward, investigators found spent cigarette butts in bushes, as if a car full of kids had torn through the park throwing lighted cigarettes out the windows.
On May 4, a pair of fires flashed on the Beeline at the turnoff to Saguaro Lake, and before they were extinguished, 95 acres in the Tonto National Forest had burned. An elderly couple driving south on the highway saw a late-model, burgundy, two-door sedan parked at the roadside with the door open. A moment later, a white male just under six feet tall, with thick, black hair, jumped into the car and sped off toward Fountain Hills. An instant later, flames burst from the desert where he had been.
Bud Shaver of the Forest Service interviewed the couple, but they hadn't written down a license-plate number. Shaver found no evidence on the site. And though he felt strongly that the fleeing man had set the fire, he knew that if he found him, the man could easily claim he was simply running away from a fire that was already burning.
There were no incendiary devices found at either of the Beeline fires outside of Fountain Hills, no perpetrators seen at the crime site. There was nothing but a pattern; they started too far off the road to have been caused by a tossed cigarette or a vehicle malfunction, and they started in the afternoon in pairs a mile or so apart from each other. And whoever started them knew what he was doing.
"If you look at wild-land fire behavior," says Captain Johnston of Rural/Metro, "10 in the morning until 6 at night are what we call peak burning hours. The dew point's lowest and the heat's coming up. And if you light it in a remote location so that it's going to take a while to get the equipment to it, even better. The fire just gets bigger."
@body:The chance that there was a serial arsonist prowling the Fountain Hills area made investigators wonder if any of their other "suspicious" fires could possibly be linked to the McDowell Pass and Double Trouble fires.
Bud Shaver of the Forest Service looked at the May 4 fires in the Tonto where witnesses had seen someone drive off from the fire scene. As at the Fountain Hills blazes, there had been two fires a short distance apart that started in the afternoon. On the afternoon of April 30, a fire started in the Tonto where the Beeline meets Bush Highway. It burned 100 acres, and before it was put out, another fire sprang up just a few miles south and burned another 15 acres. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but still, Shaver said, "It just didn't add up, and that's why we think it's arson." But he doesn't have anything more than a hunch.
Other firefighters let their imaginations run further. On June 10, the first of the big fires blazed in Fountain Hills and on the Salt River Reservation. A half-hour after Rural/Metro fire trucks reached the scene, another alarm came into the Daisy Mountain station for the I-17 fire that razed nearly 4,000 acres. Dave Behrens, the State Land Department investigator, theorized that the I-17 fire was caused by smokers at the rest area there. "I looked that one over pretty carefully," he says, "and if it was arson, I didn't see it."
But some felt the Fountain Hills and I-17 fires were linked. "I look at the pattern," says Captain Don Johnston, who coordinated the attack on the Beeline fires for Rural/Metro. "A fire started right on the Beeline. Just a couple minutes later, one starts at the overlook, and within 35 to 40 minutes, another starts out at Carefree Highway on a beautiful, sunny day. If you were to get in a car at the Beeline and Shea, how long would it take you to get to the scenic overlook and Shea? From there to I-17 and Carefree Highway then, 40 minutes? An hour?"
Indeed, the distance between the two fires can be driven in less than an hour. And again on June 29, a few hours after the second Fountain Hills fires, the Biscuit Flats arson flared just a few miles from the scene of the I-17 fire. Was it coincidence? Behrens thinks so. And there was simply not enough evidence to even bother pursuing.
The BIA and Salt River Community police department left the investigating to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and the detective in charge of the investigation, Bob Powers, admits that he is not a fire investigator per se, and that not much investigation has been done.
"Rural/Metro, they've been the ones who have gotten this thing going as far as arson is concerned," says Detective Powers, "and yet they have not provided any evidence to me such as cause and origin. If we were to find a suspect and prosecute him, we would have to show that it was an arson, and by doing that, we would have to have evidence taken at the scene and evidence of how the fire started. . . . I'm not saying there isn't any evidence. I'm saying we don't have any."
@body:Wildfire arson is often a spur-of-the-moment decision: a carload of kids out for a joyride and one dares another to start a fire. A disgruntled husband is mad at his wife and vents his anger by pulling over to the side of the road on his way to or from work and setting fire to the grass.
"Most of them are set late at night or in the early-morning hours when there's the least amount of traffic and possibility of witnesses," says Chief Bushong of the Phoenix Fire Department. "They can hide a lot easier than in broad daylight. If they're setting lots of them, it's a crime of opportunity, either going to or coming from work where they happen to be out and about."
Sometimes the arsonist is someone holding a grudge, other times a wanna-be firefighter paid by the job instead of by salary, a supplier who perhaps rents out a water tanker to the firefighters. Most of the time, it's a kid.
More than half of all fires--structure fires and wildfires alike--are set by children, 5-year-old "curiosity fire setters" playing with matches or 9-year-old "crisis fire setters" who feel powerless about their parents' divorces and creating crises they feel in control of. Or, as in the case of the South Mountain fires, by juvenile delinquents. Phoenix has had 179 fire-related juvenile calls so far this year. Pathological fire setters, those who set fires as a symptom of their mental illness, also tend to be males under the age of 17--according to Kenneth Goldberg, a psychologist who counsels juvenile fire setters for the Phoenix Fire Department--and their fires tend to be more ritualized. They set them at the same time under the same circumstances. Then they stick around to watch the flames, see the commotion, witness the heroics of the firefighters. They may even make taunting "you can't catch me" calls to the authorities. They are also very rare.
The Beeline fires fit none of those parameters. "As an armchair analyst," says Goldberg of those fires, "we're not talking about kids messing around in the preserves. There seems to be a great deal of planning and intentionality to this."
But when asked if there could really be so many depraved people who wanted to watch the desert burn, Goldberg just nodded his head and whispered, "Oh yes." The blackened scars in the desert bear witness.
@body:The hills behind Larry and Peggy Rogers' Fountain Hills home look as if they've been napalmed. Three-quarters of the saguaros that cover the hillsides are dead or severely damaged; some have already fallen with monsoon winds, the rest are yellowed brown ten feet up their stalks. Where there were once creosote bushes too thick to walk through, there are now only baked gravel and the blackened trunks of paloverde trees. As fire advances, paloverdes dry out and superheat, so that when the flames touch them, they virtually explode and burn like torches. Others seem leafless but green, literally cooked in the cambium though they appear to be alive. "When you cook broccoli, it stays green," explains Duncan Patten, who is director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Arizona State University, and an expert on desert fires. With a scanning gesture of his arm, Patten points to those still-standing saguaros that look burned on the bottom but green on top. "They may take two years to die," he points out. The only saguaros here that will survive are in patches of ground that miraculously were skipped by the fire or where the fire was not as hot.
The cholla look melted, blackened and brittle. Patten points to one and explains that the very sheaths of the cholla spines are highly flammable and ignite with a flash. He stomps over spongy ground aerated by animal burrows beneath, ground that was probably under vegetation so dense that no one had ever walked there before. Each large tree creates its own microenvironment, plants and animals that flourish in the shade more densely than in the open. When those areas burn, they burn fiercely.
Where bushes once grew, there is now nothing but quarter-inch-high stubble; the stalks and leaves and grass have been absolutely consumed, leaving nothing behind but a faint smell as of rotting garbage. Patten bends to point out a blackened wisp of a plant stalk that was probably bursage; in its summer incarnation, it was all dried twigs, fine fuel, as firefighters call it. When it burns, Patten says, "the heat is so intense that you'll have a ring here and nothing will come up, because essentially it has cooked the soil and all the seeds are cooked."
A half-hour north of Fountain Hills on the Beeline Highway is a patch of desert that Duncan Patten has been monitoring since it burned in the 1960s. It is green and lush and looks fully recovered--until you compare the trees and cactus on either side of the road. The west side of the highway burned, and clearly there are one-third the number of paloverde and saguaros there as on the unburned east side.
"That was not as hot a fire [as in Fountain Hills]," Patten says as a caution. "You burn these areas, it could take decades, even centuries, before they come back with the diversity they had before."
The severity of the damage depends on the severity of the weather in the weeks and months preceding the fire. If there has been rainfall and the plants are full of moisture, they have a better chance of withstanding the burn. If the fuel load--the grass and dried bushes--is light, the fire might flash through quickly, searing the grass without damaging the larger vegetation.
That was not the case this year. This year's early rains doubled the amount of grass, and the summer drought dried it mercilessly. The trees and cacti had precious little stored moisture with which to fend off the heat of the fire. And the fire burned hot.
Larry Rogers had noted that the rabbits had come back to the seared hills behind his home, and consequently so have the coyotes, but he hadn't yet seen the javelina that used to spar with his dog. Nor had he seen any rattlesnakes. "At least the rains washed away a lot of the blackness," Rogers said.
A troubling aspect of the fire is the lack of concern that some of the Rogerses' neighbors show about the damage. One, who had moved to the neighborhood from Wisconsin two days after the June 10 fire, just shrugged, and although he was disappointed that many saguaros had toppled, said, "Actually, I wasn't too sad because there was a lot of scrub brush out there--half of it was all brown, anyway." In his Midwestern aesthetic, he had dismissed the virgin desert vegetation, not realizing that it would have exploded into yellow blooms with the spring rains.
Real estate agents asserted that the fires would not affect property values in the least. "There are so many scenic vistas in Fountain Hills," one of them sniffed.
"It's going to come back as natural vegetation, whatever happens," another insisted. "It will come back. It will be fine. I'm an old farm girl, and it all comes back after the fire. It's not going to affect property values whatsoever."
Peggy Rogers was not so optimistic. "I find that hard to believe, as positive as I want to be since our house is up for sale," she said. "It's not going to come back."
The hills will be green next spring, but they may not ever be the same as they were. In fact, green shoots are already peeking through the gravel, grasses mostly, some catclaw bushes rising from unburned roots, a thatch of new growth on an ironwood tree. Bursage also comes back quickly after a fire, and so does banana yucca.
Beneath a badly charred paloverde, Patten spots a tiny shoot, a young blue paloverde that has somehow beaten the odds and pushed up hopefully from the ground. If it can compete with the invasive grasses that will plunder the water from the surrounding soil, it may grow into a mature tree.
But it will take 30 years. It may take 100 years for the saguaros to come back, if they come back at all.
A desert arson fire with damages above $1,000 is a Class IV felony. In the unlikely event that the criminal who burned this land is ever caught, he might get a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The desert has already been sentenced to 100 years to life of regeneration.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.