Longform

THE SOURING INFERNO

Page 4 of 8

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."

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Michael Kiefer