THE SOURING INFERNO
At six o'clock on the evening of July 7, a Friday, James Witt was standing on a boulder in his front yard near the corner of Alma School and Dynamite roads in north Scottsdale, looking for the signs of a lightning strike one of his house guests had seen from a window.
A half-mile away, Witt could make out wispy clouds, and something else.
"We saw this strange kind of pattern on the ground where the lightning hit . . . it was kind of a glow," he remembers.
Brown smoke was swirling so lightly into the overcast sky that Witt was not sure at first that it was really smoke. When he saw the flames, he punched 911 on his phone.
It was 6:02 p.m. Five minutes later, Witt called again. He didn't see any trucks until about a half-hour later, when a yellow engine from Rural/Metro--the private-sector corporation that provides fire protection for the city of Scottsdale--roared into his cul-de-sac looking for a dirt road into the fire. Then it roared off again.
This was the humble beginning of the Rio fire. Quickly fanned by gale-force down drafts, it whorled in every direction at once, through roadless thickets of tinder-dry grass and brush, swooshing a hundred feet at a time, preheating the trees in its path so that they literally exploded into flame. When the smoke cleared three days later, more than 23,000 acres of Arizona's most beautiful desert landscape had been incinerated, including pricey real estate, priceless habitat and 14,000 acres of McDowell Mountain Park.
Nearly 500 firefighters from all over the Valley fought bravely to contain the blaze. But their efforts were complicated by the hundreds of new houses feathered into the edge of the desert, because they had to leave the front lines to defend them, thus letting the fire escape.
The Rio fire burned fast and it burned hot. When it was extinguished, there was another fire that Rural/Metro had to put out, and that was its long-smoldering feud with the Valley's municipal firefighters. The first sketchy reports said that the Rio fire would be stopped at Dynamite Road, which would have limited it to less than a hundred acres. Some firefighters outside Rural/Metro think it could have been stopped there.
They claim that if the Rio fire had started in any other community in the Valley, it would have been attacked differently, with more men and more machines that would have been dispatched by computer rather than by telephone. Rural/Metro fire officers who were on the scene say otherwise. "You could not stop this fire," claims Al DiBennedetto, the Rural/Metro fire captain who was the first man on the scene at the Rio. "This thing exploded like a bomb." Just how many men and how many machines were dispatched for the initial attack is difficult to tell, because Rural/Metro would not provide the computerized data sheet logging the on-scene times for those companies, despite repeated requests and a freedom of information request to the City of Scottsdale. Rural/Metro does not like to be questioned.
Robert Edwards, Rural/Metro's vice president for fire operations, claims that numbers mattered less than training.
"You don't fight a brush fire with turnouts," he says. No firefighters were better trained in wildland fire tactics than those he sent to the Rio, he maintains.
According to an abbreviated transcript of the dispatch tapes that evening, there was a four-wheel-drive vehicle called a "brush truck" that can get a hose and water tank closer to a grass fire than a conventional fire truck, and a big fire engine on the scene when the fire blew up. There were three more brush trucks and another fire engine on the way. And the alarm room had already dispatched a convoy for further assistance. It was not that different a response than might have been mustered in Phoenix's larger fire department.
But still critics griped. Rural/Metro does do things differently from any other department.
Rural/Metro is a corporation, not a government entity, and as such may be too influenced by the bottom line. There are plenty of critics who say this is not the best way to fight fires.
For years the two factions have repeated the same set-piece arguments. The union firefighters repeat the same horror stories about staffing on fire trucks and overbilling.
Rural/Metro, for its part, churns out spin-doctored stories about what a great job it does, and throws out baffling figures to show how much less expensive it is than a run-of-the-mill city fire department.
Rural/Metro prides itself on running a leaner operation than its municipal counterparts in the Phoenix area. Its promotional literature boasts that it combines full-time with part-time firefighters. The full-timers work more hours per week than any other department. And while most fire companies put four men on most fire trucks, Rural/Metro saves money by often putting two and even one man on some trucks. Most firefighters say that's not enough.
Rural/Metro firehouses are staffed by fewer firefighters, as well--three or four compared to Phoenix's six--relying instead on a complex network of reserve and on-call firefighters, and seasonal extras. And they are housed in proportionately fewer firehouses. There is only one Scottsdale firehouse north of the CAP canal despite the hundreds of homes that have sprung up there like toadstools after a rain. New firehouses have been planned by the City of Scottsdale, but north of the CAP canal they are years away. Until then, homeowners will depend on a Rural/Metro station in Carefree for back-up. "They're throwing thousands and thousands of people into the desert and they're not increasing the fire protection," says Ed Schneider, a retired firefighter and former resident of Scottsdale.
The critics are also quick to point out that Rural/Metro does not have the same cooperative agreements with its neighbors as do the municipal departments. Partly because of how Rural/Metro staffs its trucks and firehouses and how it dispatches its fire companies, and partly because of the running distrust from neighboring fire departments, Scottsdale does not participate in the automatic aid agreement in place among the other Valley departments. Automatic aid means that a fire truck from any city can be immediately dispatched to your house in an emergency with no regard for political boundaries. Rural/Metro has to call over the telephone for back-up from fire departments outside the Rural/Metro system, which takes time.
"Their system is inferior to the rest of the Valley. . . . Their communications are inferior," says George Pickett, who, as vice president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, is a longtime firefighter and longtime crusader against Rural/Metro. "As a citizen of Scottsdale, I'm concerned about what I see."
Rural/Metro claims its for-profit operation makes it more efficient, more motivated than union-shop departments. But even some of its own present and former firefighters say that the profit motive gets in the way of lifesaving. The Rio fire brought another paycheck. While the press lauded Rural/Metro's efforts in seeing that no homes were destroyed, according to another firefighter, Rural/Metro fire captains were bragging that the company had made money on the fire.
Meanwhile, the threat of big fires increases with the profligate growth of development, especially in those years when a wet spring chokes the desert with grass and brush that dries to tinder in the summer heat. The July 7 fire was originally called the "Troon" fire, after the tony community it threatened. But three years ago, there had already been a major Troon fire just down the road, and so they renamed this one for Rio Verde Drive, where it started. That they are already scrambling for fire names indicates the size of the desert fire threat. "I've been wracked with this since the fire," says Lou Jekel, the wildland fire chief for Rural/Metro. "We all knew something like this could happen, and it was worse than we expected."
According to the official Rural/Metro version of the fire's first hour, Captain Al DiBennedetto and firefighter B.J. Pullman pulled up to the fire scene in DiBennedetto's command pickup truck seven minutes after the 911 call.
"There were about seven or eight acres burning," says DiBennedetto, "with pretty erratic winds, and we had a thunderhead over the top of us."
A brush truck was hot on DiBennedetto's tail, and headed to the west side of the fire, driving up a dirt road looking for a way into the flames. The fire was still 250 yards from Dynamite Road, and the firefighters thought they could set a backfire to consume all the combustible fuel between the road and the fire so that it would burn out.
But then, DiBennedetto says, "The fire blew up."
A microburst--a sudden intense gust of wind--shot downward from the thunderhead, ricocheted down a mountain and fanned the flames.
"It was coming at us from every direction at the same time," Pullman says. "We had about 30 seconds to get out of there."
The fire exploded from seven to 50 acres in a heartbeat, Pullman says, and to 100 acres within 15 minutes, and then blew over Dynamite Road. It was 6:21 p.m.
DiBennedetto called for structural engines to be routed toward the nearest housing developments.
"As soon as it crossed Dynamite, we knew it was going to be in the houses," he says.
Rural/Metro had not put a reconnaissance helicopter in the air over the fire, but it did manage to raise a TV news chopper on the radio and hitch a ride. Fire engines were bumper to bumper along Dynamite by this time.
At 6:30 p.m., Rural/Metro dispatchers called for air tankers and back-up from other fire departments and retreated to the nearest houses to protect them from the growing conflagration. By then an enormous column of black smoke could be seen from nearly everywhere in the Valley.
Around 7 p.m., the Phoenix Fire Department received a phone call from the State Land Department, asking for assistance. By 7:09 p.m., Phoenix had five brush trucks, an engine, a tender, and 14 men, including a battalion chief, on the road. The first of the trucks was on the scene within 14 minutes, but the situation was already hopeless.
Don Hilderbrant, the Phoenix battalion chief, led his contingent down Rio Verde Drive with flames on both sides of the road, at times arcing over the top of them, as if they were driving through a tunnel of fire. They pulled down 128th Street to defend the houses at the end of a cul-de-sac, and they stayed into the night, until their water ran out.
Four air tankers, some of them diverted from other fires, dribbled in, one at 7 p.m., two at 7:30, one at 8, with only enough time to drop one load each of the pink fire retardant that firefighters call "slurry." The planes were back on the job by 7 a.m. Saturday, hoping to pinch off the fire for good in the early morning hours while humidity is highest and fires lie down to rest. The flames were then languishing high up in the McDowell Mountains, but the winds shifted too frequently to cut off the fire, and as the solar radiation picked up, the fire was running again, this time toward the southeast and McDowell Mountain Park.
At six o'clock on that evening, Rural/Metro turned over the command of the fire to Jeff Whitney of the Central Arizona Interagency team, a strike force composed of state and federal firefighting agencies.
When the Rio fire crossed out of Scottsdale through BLM land and raced into McDowell Mountain Park, Rural/Metro changed roles, as well. It had fulfilled its obligation for fighting fires within Scottsdale's boundaries. Now it was on the clock, firefighting for hire.
As of this writing, Rural/Metro had not yet sent a bill to the State Land Department, which will collect the costs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but fire officials there were expecting something in the neighborhood of $30,000.
The fire burned through Sunday and into Monday before it finally burned itself out. By Tuesday there was nothing left but a few glowing hot spots--and 36 square miles of ash.
There were no houses lost.
Ironically, even though the Troon area property is valuable, especially because of its scenic setting in the desert, and even if the Rio fire is the worst fire in the history of Maricopa County, the 23,000 devastated acres don't count as "loss" as far as fire loss statistics are concerned.
After the blaze, Rural/Metro Corporation printed up tee shirts for all the firefighters who fought it, commemorating the big blaze with a dramatic image of an air tanker dropping a pink slurry load. At the bottom of the design is a blocky picture of a house inside a red circle with a diagonal slash. The message: "No houses lost."
The shirt also lists the equipment and fire departments that responded.
At the height of the Rio fire, there were 459 men and women battling the blaze--pilots, hotshot crews, support people from numerous municipal fire departments, as well as state and federal agency personnel from as far away as Idaho Falls. "The Rural/Metro approach is to get 400 people there within a day or two," says Pat Cantelme, president of the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, and a longtime critic of nonunion Rural/Metro. "It doesn't matter how many people you get there after the fire is 20 or 30 feet in the air, it matters how many people you get there in 20 minutes."
If the fire had started in Peoria under similar conditions--heavy fuel and heavy winds--that municipality would have immediately sent two fire engines with three or four men each, four brush trucks, a water tender, two battalion chiefs, and a DPS helicopter to fly reconnaissance.
If it had started in Phoenix, it would have raised two engines, two brush trucks, a water tender, a battalion chief and a helicopter, as well, and if, on the way to the fire, they got more calls, they would throw even more at it immediately. In fact, Phoenix had thrown one engine, five brush trucks, a water tender and 14 men at this fire.
Rural/Metro sent two brush trucks and an engine and eight men in its initial attack--though they did upgrade and had three more brush trucks at the blaze within 30 minutes. They left their water tender, a rolling water tank, essentially, at the station, because, as DiBennedetto explains, you don't fight brush fires as much with water as with backfires and hand crews and air drops. And Robert Edwards, the Rural/Metro vice president, is quick to point out that all Rural/Metro firefighters have "red cards," the wildland firefighting certification given by the U.S. Forest Service.
But it wasn't just a wildland fire. There were houses around. Experience told the Rural/Metro crew that it had to back down from the fire, turn and protect the nearest housing developments--and the fire got bigger.
Scott Hunt, who is in charge of the State Land Department's firefighting, says, "It got up to about 1,200 acres in the first hour. We just had dry, nasty weather conditions and a shortage of resources because there were a lot of other fires going on in the state. It escaped the initial attack. The resources that went there couldn't put out the fire. They had to go protect houses."
But Cantelme thinks they put too little on the fire in the first minutes and then gave up too quickly.
"If they had had the manpower or they had shifted the manpower and started a back burn along Dynamite, it appears to me that's where the fire would have stopped," he says. "They take a stand at the house because the house is a fixed point. You need to put more resources earlier and you need to take a different approach, which more resources would allow you to do."
George Pickett, who has been a firefighter for 28 years--chief of two west Valley departments and vice president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association--agrees. "You attack a brush fire from the flank," he says. "You don't wait for the fire to come to you because it'll roll right past you. Why didn't they take a stand closer up and make this fire 2,000 acres instead of 20,000?"
"If we had an air tanker on top of us, we could not stop this fire," insists DiBennedetto.
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.
The IC wanted her to redirect her slurry tankers to a fancier neighborhood under construction on the west side of the mountain, even though the fire was not yet threatening that side, "to protect the scenic value of that mountain."
In other words, Goldhahn was asked to save lots instead of houses.
"And I had a problem with that," she says, "because I felt that scenic value was one thing and we had real estate down there that was being threatened."
And so she shot back, "What about the value of these houses down here that have actual people in them?"
Air attack diplomatically reminded her that the IC was the boss, but Goldhahn continued on her own course. Finally, after more reminders, she brought a slurry load through on the southwest side, dropped it high and watched it blow away ineffectively.
Rural/Metro's Lou Jekel was puzzled when questioned about the incident.
To his knowledge, Rural/Metro was no longer in charge of the air attack at that point.
"We have always had a policy to defend houses," he says.
Rural/Metro was founded in 1948, when a newspaper reporter named Lou Witzeman watched a Phoenix neighbor's house burn down because there was no fire department. He started his own. Four years later, in 1952, when the City of Scottsdale incorporated, Rural/Metro signed on to provide its fire protection. It has been there ever since, and has fielded fire departments and ambulance companies across the country with great fiscal success. In 1994, Rural/Metro posted gross revenues of $104 million, and has projected revenues near $170 million for 1995.
Rural/Metro claims to be the second largest national corporation headquartered in Scottsdale. The management of Scottsdale and of Rural/Metro are intertwined.
Rural/Metro vice president for fire operations Robert Edwards was formerly married to Scottsdale assistant city manager Barbara Burns. Wildland fire chief and major stockholder Lou Jekel is a prominent zoning attorney and longtime friend of Mayor Herb Drinkwater. Drinkwater is a reserve fire captain.
In other communities where it has fire contracts, Rural/Metro also keeps tight political bonds.
In 1992, Phoenix firefighter John Vardian was elected to the Fountain Hills fire board, which contracts with Rural/Metro for fire protection. Before he took office, the remaining commissioners tried to push through a ten-year contract with Rural/Metro because they assumed that Vardian would try to organize a unionized municipal fire department.
Vardian clashed with the board over disclosure of finances.
"Since we paid Rural/Metro in excess of a million dollars a year, I wanted to know where some of that money was going," Vardian says. "I couldn't get that information, and I was a board member."
He was forbidden access to the firefighters and was not allowed to deal directly with Rural/Metro, he claims. Finally, he resigned in frustration and moved out of Fountain Hills.
Fire boards in other communities found the same stone walls. Ben Owens, fire chief for the town of Laveen and a former battalion chief for Rural/Metro, claims that Rural/Metro was booted out of that community for refusing to reveal its profit margin on services rendered to the fire district boards.
Rural/Metro touts its Scottsdale program as the least expensive in the Valley, because of its system of staffing with a combination of full-time and part-time, or "reserve," firefighters. Rural/Metro also admits that it cuts back on the number of firefighters per truck, but, because of the great numbers of on-call and reserve firefighters on its rosters, both in Scottsdale and in the outlying towns where it has fire stations, it can page the manpower when it needs it.
Which sounds great in theory, but may work differently in practice.
"By the time I'd get there, the fire would be out and we just cleaned up," says Robin Driscoll, remembering his days as a Rural/Metro reserve firefighter. He now works for the Tempe Fire Department.
The reserve firefighter system also makes it difficult to compare Scottsdale's firefighting manpower costs with those of other municipalities.
Rural/Metro buries costs in a tricky financial fire-protection package, and it works like this: Scottsdale builds the fire stations and buys most of the large apparatus. Rural/Metro provides the bodies, the small equipment, makes its own vehicles--command pickups and brush trucks, for example--available within the city limits, and takes care of the administration of it all. This fiscal year, from an overall fire budget of $10 million, Scottsdale will pay Rural/Metro $9.4 million to provide the equivalent of 102 on-duty firefighters, including officers and fire prevention staff, spaced over eight fire stations. Rural/Metro resents such simplification, because it doesn't take into account the manpower resources it has in its reserves.
Rural/Metro does not provide a line-item explanation of where the money goes.
Tempe, by contrast, is one-fifth as large as Scottsdale, but it has 150 firefighters for which it pays $7.4 million out of an overall $10 million budget. Tempe also pays a higher starting salary than Rural/Metro, and its firefighters (like all municipal firefighters in the Valley), work 12 fewer hours per week to earn it.
Mesa is two-thirds as large as Scottsdale, but it has three times as many full-time firefighter positions in twice as many firehouses. Its budget, meanwhile, is only twice as large as Scottsdale's, most of which goes to salaries, for three times as many manned positions per week.
And even if Scottsdale residents are already paying as much or more money for less fire coverage than other Valley cities, they also pay higher fire insurance rates. The Insurance Service Organization, or ISO, ranks communities for fire risk, based on fire departments, water supplies and other firefighting variables. The system uses a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best and 10 the worst.
Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa have ratings of 2; Peoria and Glendale are rated as 3s; Scottsdale is a 4. And though Mayor Herb Drinkwater assured New Times that, as of September, Scottsdale would be a 2, Randy Surber, the ISO regional manager in Los Angeles, said he knew nothing to that effect.
Rural/Metro hates the firefighter unions almost as much as the unions hate Rural/Metro. So any questions regarding Rural/Metro's costs and operations are usually countered with antiunion statements.
"I hear that the unions are talking to you," Drinkwater told New Times, "that's what I can figure out."
In a letter to the Lake Havasu newspaper, Rural/Metro vice president Bob Edwards wrote, "The majority of our critics are motivated by a union agenda which has more to do with power than public interest. It is quite apparent that the firefighter's union has waged a 'misinformation campaign' against Rural/Metro intended to cloud the truth and maintain the status quo."
Rural/Metro lost the bid to provide services for Lake Havasu. Edwards claims that the unions appear anywhere the company makes its pitch and trot out the same war-horse stories, sometimes leaving out important information. The unions tell about the much-publicized 1990 incident in which Rural/Metro failed to respond to a fire at a fast-food restaurant because it was in Phoenix--even though it was directly across the street from a Rural/Metro station.
Rural/Metro has since proved in litigation that it did respond and was told to back off by Phoenix firefighters who arrived on the scene moments later.
The unions bring up Scottsdale's inability or unwillingness to participate in automatic aid agreements with the Phoenix Fire Department, as do the rest of the Valley's major fire departments. All 911 calls in those communities funnel into a computer-aided dispatch (or CAD) system that uses satellites to pinpoint the fire's location and determine the closest fire station to it within ten feet, regardless of what town the station is in. In other words, if you live in Glendale, but a Phoenix firehouse is closer to your home than the nearest Glendale firehouse, the computer will dispatch the Phoenix station.
Scottsdale does not participate in automatic aid.
"We have not been invited to participate," says Marc Eisen, Director of Emergency Services for Scottsdale. The city does have "mutual aid" agreements with its neighbors that require that the fire departments communicate by telephone and hash things out.
The unions also bring up the number of firefighters on each truck. Most departments put four men on a fire engine with the rationale that one man has to stay with the engine's water pump, and one has to direct the operation, leaving two men to fight the fire.
Although Rural/Metro does in fact run some four-man trucks, the unions call attention to Rural/Metro's policy of frequently putting two or even one man on a truck. With one manning the pump, the other has to fight the fire alone.
"It was really scary," says one former Rural/Metro employee. "Sometimes they would send one guy with a truck. That's violating everything you've ever learned."
Other departments joke about it:
"Rural/Metro is the only company that can show up with one-man teams," as a Tempe firefighter quipped.
Rural/Metro contracts for fire protection and ambulance service in Scottsdale, Rio Verde and Fountain Hills, but in other towns, such as Paradise Valley, Cave Creek and Carefree, they instead sell "subscriptions," which, in essence, are insurance policies that businesses and homeowners pay to defray the expense of actually having to call 911 in an emergency.
"They go where the wallet is," says a current Rural/Metro firefighter who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution.
Nonsubscribers pay dearly. New Times obtained a 1992 Rural/Metro invoice received by a Cave Creek resident that demanded $836 for "attempted snake removal."
Last January, a Peoria couple sued to keep from paying a $5,000 bill sent to them for a 1994 fire. When the fire broke out, the homeowners maintained, the Peoria fire department arrived first, and Rural/Metro arrived after the fire had mostly been extinguished. Rural/Metro sent the bill for $5,000, anyway.
Similarly, Rural/Metro is now suing Fireworks Productions International, the Tempe fireworks plant that blew up in June of 1994.
The factory sits on an unincorporated part of the county adjacent to Tempe within a Rural/Metro subscription area. Because the 911 call came from a Tempe phone number, Tempe fire trucks were dispatched to the scene, though it was out of the city's jurisdiction. Nevertheless, according to Tempe Fire Department personnel, they fought the fire and airlifted a man injured in the explosion.
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.
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