Longform

THE SOURING INFERNO

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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.

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Michael Kiefer