Longform

THE SOURING INFERNO

Page 5 of 8

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Kiefer