June 30, 2014 marks the first-year anniversary of the tragic Yarnell Hill fire that took the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. A day of infamy in US fire history, it has provoked abundant reflection and some action.
Twelve days before the fatal, fateful fire, another blaze, the Doce Fire, started in dense chaparral and shot northward, propelled by powerful winds. It jumped the highway and sped up over both Little Granite Mountain and Granite Mountain itself, descending with unexpected ferocity down the north slope right up to the edge of homes in Williamson Valley. It was a terrifying reminder of the power of nature that can overwhelm the puny efforts of humans, even with our advanced technology. It was humbling.
There were bright spots in that human-nature conflict. The 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshots team was aware of the ancient alligator juniper that grew in view of both mountains for centuries. Revered and respected, that tree stood in the line of fire. But for the intervention of the hotshots, it might today be nothing more than a lifeless, charred trunk, victim of one fire too many. The crew saved it by creating firebreaks and by using their personal water containers to put out spot fires in its branches. This was an act of thoughtful heroism; these men put themselves on the fire line simply to save a tree.
Ancient juniper at edge of Doce Burn
But it was, and still is, more than a tree—it is a symbol of resistance, of fortitude, of ancient wisdom. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →