Watching Arizona burn

by Jayson Bailey of Chandler, Arizona

Communities for Healthy Forests

Living in the Southwest, can sometimes feel a bit like living in a matchbox. It’s dry, it’s hot, and at any moment things can ignite. Fire season is nothing new to us in Arizona, each year Arizona experiences more than its fair share of wildfires and witnesses the destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land.

In 2011, Arizona battled one of the largest fire seasons on record. Anchoring 2011, the Wallow Fire was the largest fire in State history, consuming more than 841 square miles of land. The fire blazed its way through some of Arizona’s most treasured forest areas, devastating rural communities, and handicapping local economies. More than a dozen rural communities were evacuated and the costs of damages exceeded $100 million by the time fire crews were able to contain the blaze. According to news reports, the costs associated with suppression and clean up of the Wallow Fire exceeded $109 million when all was said and done.

Just this past May, I took the family on a weekend fishing trip in the White Mountains. The high mountain lakes had just thawed and been stocked and it was the perfect time to catch pan sized trout, that is if you were willing to drive a bit out of the way. As we set up the windy mountain road only lush green Conifer Pine was in sight. But as we rounded a bend we came face to face with the remnants the Wallow fire. Huge tracts of scorched earth lay between what forest was left. The landscape looked like something out of a sci-fi film, barren strips of blackish ground twisted amongst groves of charred trees – some still partially standing, others lying in decaying piles on the forest floor. My kids noted that it looked like someone “nuked” the area. As we wound up the mountain and looked back we could see the path of the fire so clearly that it was like someone had taken a brush, dipped it in black paint, and dragged it along the scenery, stopping here and there to re-dip the ink. In the midst of our enthusiasm, it was a solemn reminder of the threats facing our State’s beauty land.

Not a month later we witnessed an even more immediate and somber reminder of the dangers of fire season in the Southwest. My children were visiting their grandparents in Northern Utah for the summer and my wife and I were headed up to retrieve them before the school year began. It was late June, and we knew the fire season was under way. The Yarnell Fire just outside of Prescott, Arizona had just begun to burn, and we had caught several news stories covering the fire. As luck would have it, our route took us right past the area the Yarnell Fire was burning. From the highway we could see the glow of the fire peaking over the mountain ridge. The area was thick with smoke and as we stopped for gas we noted how poor the air quality was and how the whole town smelled like a campfire or barbecue. At the moment the fire was nothing out of the ordinary, and didn’t seem like any significant cause for alarm. Being that close to a wildfire seemed like more a surreal and curious experience than a tragic one.

As we left the area and headed down the highway suddenly the winds changed direction. A massive gust nearly forced our SUV off the road. My knuckles gripped the wheel tighter, and my wife went from her half asleep state to wide awake and alert. “Wow,” I said. “Did you feel how strong those winds are? I hope it doesn’t hurt containment efforts over the hill.” The date was Sunday, June 28, 2013.

A few hours later the report came over the radio, 19 of Arizona’s most elite firefighters had perished when winds shifted and turned the fire back on top of them. The blood drained from our faces. We had just passed through that area. We had just felt those winds. We awed at the fires majesty and power as we traveled past, but didn’t pause to think about the permanent dangers it posed. Now 19 lives had been lost, and countless others devastated – all in a split second. In moments the Yarnell Fire had becomes the most devastating fire in Arizona history and responsible for the largest loss of Firefighters since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The remaining drive through Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert was somber to say the least. As I stared out the window, I couldn’t help but think just how fragile this beautiful environment was. How it only takes one lightning strike, one forgotten campfire, or one loose ember to destroy thousands of years of God’s great work. How the stakes are bigger than just structures and dollars, that every wildfire in the United States puts real people, with real families, in jeopardy.

As we pulled into the town of Kingman, Arizona, in the far Northwest portion of the State, just before you reach Las Vegas, another wildfire was burning. The fire had consumed a collection of small hills and ridges and was encroaching on local neighborhoods. Although smaller and less notable on the grand scheme of things, it was yet another staunch reminder to us that wildfire season in the Southwest is not a matter of fringe politics, fiscal budgets, or moral ideals. It’s a real danger, one that should be taken seriously before any others have to pay the ultimate price.

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