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.