Nine months after the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, the event continues to touch many of us with a rawness only slightly softened by time. My memories remain vivid. With thunderstorm activity developing in the Prescott area that afternoon, I grabbed my camera and headed out to the Doce Fire area south of Granite Mountain. Fierce little rain squalls gave me subjects to explore visually. The powdered ash deposits post-fire are very vulnerable to erosion, a step in the ecologic process I wanted to capture.
June 20, 2013 rain on burned chaparral
Then as a squall shifted south, I could see in the distance a column of smoke that caused my hair to rise—it appeared to me that the small town of Yarnell was on fire. Without hesitation, I leaped into the car and shot toward Skull Valley, having to slow down once in the midst of an intense downpour. The closer I got to Peeple’s Valley, the more my concern intensified, and I made a decision that gave me a perfect vantage point on a ridge north of the fire. If I had continued any farther down the highway, I would have been stopped by emergency vehicles and stuck in a line of other cars prohibited from moving farther.
I remember as keenly as if it were still happening how, as I began to photograph the towering cloud of smoke, winds shifted, chilling me briefly with horizontal pellets of rain. A small herd of horses ran north to below my position. I continued to watch and document as the fire split into two fiery tongues—one right at Yarnell and another in rugged canyons in the Weavers to the west of the valley. Planes and helicopters appeared as tiny insects buzzing around the periphery of the towering giant. I watched until sunset, an eerie yellowish light bathing the entire scene, and I sensed that this would be a moment of tragic history. Continue reading →
29 June 2013. Prescott, Arizona. At Granite Mountain, eleven days after the eruption of the big Doce Fire, the smoke has cleared—mostly. There are still hot pockets (inedible ones) with potential for flames to rise from the ashes and run amok again. Mother Nature teases us with clouds trailing virga—and even a few drops of liquid that reach the ground—but the hot winds accompanying the clouds continue their mischief, and dry lightning ignites new blazes around the county. A microburst (sorry, not an artisan brew) takes down trees in town and starts a fire. The firefighters are still out there at the mountain, and aircraft drone overhead on their missions of attempted control. But for most of us, the adrenalin has subsided; our fears have receded.
30 June 2013. One of those fires started two days ago happened to be in Yarnell, and today it erupted into the disastrous fire that took the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the same folks who fought the Doce Fire and, in the process, saved the sacred ancient juniper that may have watched the comings and goings of wildfire for millennia. I was photographing the aftermath of the Doce Fire when I saw the terrible black cloud rising to the south, so I raced down there and watched from a safe distance as the flames engaged in the chaotic dance of pyrotechnics triggered by an advancing monsoonal cell. I heard and saw the screaming influx of ambulances and feared for the worst—but it was even worse than my greatest fears.
Two major local disasters by fire in Yavapai County within two weeks. Sorrow and grieving for beloved Granite Mountain (clearly personified in the emotions of many) and the brave firefighters dominate discussion.
28 July 2013. Now a month later, our wounds healing with time, we can look at the context of these fires with a bit more rationality—or at least we should. “Don’t mess with Mother Nature” is a common phrase, and it exemplifies our tacit willingness to shift responsibility to a perceived natural deity rather than accepting an obligation to live our lives as informed citizens of Planet Earth. Continue reading →
As the nation and especially the citizens of Prescott mourn the loss of 19 brave firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, we learn that this is the greatest loss of first responders since the tragedy of 9/11, when firefighters and rescue personnel, at great risk to themselves, rushed into the mayhem of the burning towers in efforts to save fellow human beings. To lose such brave men and women is a personal loss for most of us, even if we were nowhere near the scene of catastrophe. They would have done it for us, if we had been there.
Monsoon rains hit Prescott hard today, and I thought I should check on the Dosie Fire to see if erosion were occurring. While there witnessing heavy rain on the ash-blackened landscape, I saw a huge conflagration grow quickly to the south, and alarm bells went off in my head. I guessed Yarnell was in trouble, so I shot south through Skull Valley. As I approached Peeple’s Valley, the fire storm was shockingly large. I suspected the road ahead would be closed by safety personnel, so I took the Ruger Ranch Road and walked through dense chaparral on a ridge to get a viewpoint across Peeple’s Valley. Sure enough, the road was blocked off a half mile ahead.
Yarnell Hill Fire visible from north of Peeple’s Valley
I spent the next hour or two watching this massive fire morph and change like the Balrog in the depths of the mountain in Lord of the Rings. One minute the wind would be blowing west, then suddenly it would shift south and east. A north wind nearly blew me off the ridge. Continue reading →
A weather forecast of “fair” or “dry and sunny” can get away with a lot. Rain or snow quickly call attention to themselves, but “another sunny day” can hide the cumulative stresses of drought to those of us whose technology provides us with the water and other resources we need. The recent fires remind us how stressed the plants are—ready to burst into flame when provoked.
No one can deny the magic of water. After months of prolonged drought, the plants are so dry that you hesitate to touch them for fear they will disintegrate in your hand. Rub your hand over a patch of moss, and it flakes off like dust. Lizards look parched, desiccated, skeletal. Frogs are nothing but a vague memory. Leaves have dropped from some of the oaks, a necessary sacrifice if they are to make it through the period of stress.
Drought is worse than it is generally cracked up to be.
When drought persists for months, you stop expecting rain. Your skin cracks, your nostrils crust with blood, and there is a constant taste of salt on your lips. The sun moves across the sky each day, and the shadows echo its passing. Your own shadow appears less substantial, as if life everywhere has backed off, been reduced to its minimum. Your cracked lips can barely smile at dry humor. Continue reading →
June 18, 2013. The anniversary of my father’s birth. A Red Flag day, according to KNAU, with hot temperatures, fierce winds, ridiculously low humidity. Fire weather, just needing a source of ignition.
At noon I noticed a plume of smoke to the west and knew this was no “controlled burn.” Grabbing cameras and a hat, I jumped in the Subaru and headed for Iron Springs Road, only to be turned back as soon as I got out of town. The fire had started at Dosie Pit Road and had jumped the highway, heading for Granite Mountain. OK, my vantage point would have to be over near Williamson Valley Road. I could get up high on a ridge above a housing development to the west of Granite Mountain, and the view should be good there.
View west toward Granite Mt.
Sure enough, Little Granite Mountain was smoking as if she were a volcano, and a towering column of smoke curved over Granite Mountain, casting a strange orange light on its rocks. A helicopter arrived, hovering over Granite Basin Lake as it dipped buckets of water to drop on the fiery leviathan. Like spitting into a roaring bonfire, I thought. Continue reading →
Hot winds batter the landscape, sucking whatever moisture they can coax from desiccated plants. Record-breaking temperatures challenge the survival skills of wildlife, as they and we wait for the merciful monsoonal rains, should they come in a month. We wait and watch, knowing that the first plume of smoke to rise skyward could create a blazing inferno defying our feeble but expensive efforts to limit the damage.
Arizona has endured droughts and heat waves before, but there are strong signs that human activities are exacerbating the challenges faced by the more-than-human world. The summer of 2011 saw huge tracts of forest burn up in the Southwest. I witnessed the dramatic Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahuas, but in a summer of exceptional fires in both Arizona and New Mexico, that one was just the tip of the melting iceberg. That was the summer of the Wallow Fire in Arizona (largest in history), the Conchos Fire in New Mexico (also the largest recorded there), the Monument Fire in the Huachucas (which consumed the home and irreplaceable insect collections of one of my friends), and many fires in northern Mexico, where suppression was not even attempted. More than 2.1 million acres burned, over twice the previous record set in 2006 for these two states. Megafires. Unprecedented. Shocking. Continue reading →
An aerial perspective of Granite Dells in Prescott, Arizona, reveals a wonderland of rocks, an upthrust flowering of granite domes, ridges, and canyons, that amazes and inspires. For years I have worked with others to help protect and educate about this special place–first through the Open Space Acquisition Committee for the city, then as one of the founders of the Granite Dells Preservation Foundation, and now as one of the principals representing members of the Granite Dells Partnership.
Just as a migratory bird feels an irresistible inner urge teach fall, so do I experience a powerful restlessness satisfied only by ignoring my in-box, pushing aside the endless piles of papers begging to be shuffled, and taking off to some quiet corner of nature when I can embrace the changing of the seasons with full attention.
Autumn hasn’t been waiting for me—the aspens have scattered their yellow coins already up at Mt. Francis, and the maples have displayed their crimson badges at Mingus Mountain without my approval. I am not teaching my Interpreting Nature class this fall, which usually provides me a legitimate excuse to get out there. Thus, if I am not to miss the whole gaudy show of carotenoids, anthocyanins, and other pigments, I have to seize the moment, and yesterday afternoon I did just that. Continue reading →
Drifting along, like a tumbling tumbleweed. That catchy tune warbled by the Sons of the Pioneers somehow epitomizes nostalgia for the Old West. Never mind that the tumbleweed is a carpetbagger, an interloper, an émigré otherwise known as Russian thistle. I’ve heard tell that the Russkies sent it here as a kind of biological weapon, a plague on our plains, a prickly infestation designed to lay waste to our grasslands, to overwhelm us with its ability to take any of our attacks against it and come back stronger than ever. Where is the real truth here? Continue reading →