Longform

THE SOURING INFERNO

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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.

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Michael Kiefer