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.
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.
Many images later, I was ready for a new perspective, so I headed west on Williamson Valley Road, hung a left onto Fair Oaks, then took Tonto Road, thinking that I could get around on the lee side of the fire to see where it started. However, where Tonto turns to gravel, “road closed” signs blocked my passage. So I took some shots, turned around, and headed back to Williamson Valley, where views of the fire as it came over the saddle heading north were awesome.
There are a lot of houses scattered around in the scenic landscapes around Inscription Canyon and Mint Wash Ranches. Some are modest “get-away-from-it all” dwellings built long ago, but fancy houses on paved streets have sprung up around or near them. The views are incredible, but the flammability factor, except where penned horses have stripped everything to the dust, is high.
Though still some distance away, the fire was sweeping down the mountainside like a hungry dragon. Through my telephoto lens, I watched tall pines go up like giant candles. Smoke billowed in the high winds, heading toward Sedona.
I left my car in a safe place well off the road (unlike the rubberneckers pulling half-off the pavement, possibly endangering themselves or emergency vehicles coming through) and walked back through smoke-filled air into the ranchettes and homes with gorgeous views of Granite Mountain–normally. Now the dragon of fire was sweeping toward them, and people were hauling out trailers filled with horses none too happy about the situation. Turkeys gobbled in distress–would they get the same treatment?
Fire trucks and sheriff vehicles prowled the neighborhood, lights flashing. No one seemed to know where to position to be ready in case the fire left the peak and roared into the development. A pillar of smoke–orange and gray battling for supremacy–towered over the land.
Now tongues of flames licked above the trees and rocks at the foot of the mountain. All our human resources seemed puny in comparison to the fury of this inferno.
Granite Mountain, icon of this area, going up in flames because of the carelessness or neglect of someone far away on the Dosie Pit Road, where people discard junk and blast it with guns of all kinds. Fire people write the name as the Doce Fire, apparently unaware of its spelling and the fact that “doce” is Spanish for “twelve.”
To try to prevent the advancing fire from reaching the homes and ranchettes in Williamson Valley, there is an aerial assault of tanker planes and helicopters. The former swoop in low along the margin of the fire and drop red retardant. Some of the helicopters are Chinooks, bringing me back to my days in Vietnam. In fact, it’s easy to see the parallels with war here, and getting too close to the “enemy” is no less dangerous for the pilots.
The effects of the fire extend far from the flames themselves. Smoke blows far to the north, and those of us close to the fire are inhaling the residue of the pines, oaks, junipers, mountain mahoganies, and countless other victims of the firestorm. Adult birds can move away from the fire, though nestlings can’t. Some creatures will survive if deep enough underground, though the landscape to which they will emerge will no longer offer the cover or food they may need to survive.
Tree-ring studies show that prior to Anglo settlement, the fire-return interval may have been as short as every 3 – 10 years. This kept the fuel load light so that the fires were much less destructive. Logging, grazing, and active fire suppression all have contributed to the unnatural condition of the forest and scrublands here. Drought and warming have made the standing crop of plants all the more vulnerable. The tinderbox was awaiting the spark, and foolish people provided it. This fire will burn for days, and its impacts will be felt for years. Local fire ecologists (of which there are very few) will have an active research site, and perhaps, just perhaps, local land managers will take lessons from the fire and reach a public somewhat more likely to listen.
Until then, we watch in awe at the power of nature or, if our jobs and/or skills require, we fight this beast actively. Of course, the beast is really us; we have failed to accommodate to nature either through ignorance or hubris (often both). The increase in large, destructive fires in recent years is perhaps just a sign of the “new normal.” We are lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world, but it is really elementary that we should pay attention to the elements. Earth, air, fire, and water set constraints that we ignore to our peril.