The following is a guest essay by Robert Stieve, editor-in-chief of Arizona Highways magazine. It first appeared on the magazine’s blog on June 9, 2011.
It’s hard to watch the news, but there’s no point in turning off the television. The images are everywhere: Facebook, Flickr, Twitter. Especially Twitter. Of all the mainstream social media, Twitter is the best for breaking news. Coups in Egypt. Earthquakes in Japan. Wildfires in Arizona. The information is essential, but it’s hard to look at the catastrophe that’s unfolding in the White Mountains.
As editor-in-chief of Arizona Highways, I’m often asked about my favorite place in the state. It’s an impossible question, because there are so many places, but when I’m pushed, I usually admit it’s a toss-up between the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Hannagan Meadow in the White Mountains. Unfortunately, because of the cataclysm known as the Wallow Fire, there’s no longer a debate. It’s hard to imagine there will be anything left of Hannagan Meadow and the surrounding forests by the time the fire is finally put out.
As I write this blog, the blaze, which began on May 29, has already consumed 336,000 acres, and the wind gusts of more than 60 mph are making matters worse. At this point, zero percent of the fire has been contained. Zero percent. The fire is now the second largest in Arizona history, and it’s probably only a matter of time before it surpasses Rodeo-Chediski—two fires, both caused by human negligence, that merged as one.
It seems like just yesterday when that inferno was raging, but it’s been almost 10 years. And time isn’t healing the wound. Not for me, anyway. I still get heavy-hearted when I drive across the Mogollon Rim and see the apocalyptic devastation. It’s upsetting, and so is the Wallow Fire. Upsetting, depressing, sorrowful … there aren’t any words strong enough to describe what I’m feeling. I never thought I’d live to see anything as bad as Rodeo-Chediski, much less something worse. But that’s how the Wallow Fire is playing out, and like Rodeo-Chediski, we’re all in a state of shock.
It’s the same shock we feel during any other disaster. Certainly, you can’t compare Engelmann spruce and Douglas firs to the victims of a tsunami or an earthquake, but there is a similar feeling of helplessness and hopelessness when you see the dramatic photos, and when you think about what’s been lost and how that will decimate the local economies. And just when you think you couldn’t feel any worse, you think about how the Wallow Fire shouldn’t be burning at all. Although lightning fires do occur, this one was started by someone who forgot to pack his thinking cap when he headed into the great outdoors.
The details of how the fire got started are still being investigated, but according to officials of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, it was caused by a human being. Whether it was ignited by a cigarette butt, fireworks, an unattended campfire … we don’t know. Either way, somebody made a mistake. A big mistake. I was fortunate enough to be raised by an avid outdoorsman who taught me how to be careful in the forest and how to properly extinguish a campfire. But even without that training, you’d think common sense would prevail when it comes to fire. It doesn’t. It certainly didn’t for the person or persons responsible for the Wallow Fire. Or the person or persons responsible for the Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains, the Murphy Fire in the Atascosa Mountains, and all the others.
Ironically, unlike a raging forest fire, it’s pretty simple to put out a campfire. However, before you even think about firing up a portable stove or building a campfire, check with the area’s governing agency beforehand. Fire restrictions may apply during times of high fire danger. Times like now. DO NOT IGNORE THE WARNINGS.
When there aren’t any fire restrictions in place, and you’re at a campsite where fires are allowed, use only established fire pits, and put out your fire at least 60 minutes before you start to break camp. Let the fire die down, then pour water over the wood and ashes and cover them with soil. Mix the soil, water and ashes until the fire and any embers are completely out. Then, wait around for at least another hour to make sure it’s safe to leave. Again, use common sense and always adhere to the Leave No Trace Ethics.
If there’s a bright side to the Wallow Fire, it’s that no one has been seriously injured so far. Some of that is luck, but most of it is a credit to the incredible men and women who risk their lives to save our forests and our cabins and our favorite places. Last summer, almost to the day, I was stranded at Hannagan Meadow Lodge because of the Paradise Fire, which was burning in the adjacent Blue Range Primitive Area. The firefighters used the lodge as a staging area, and I had an opportunity to interact with many of them and talk about their heroic efforts. Of course, they didn’t see themselves as heroes. It was just another day on the job for them. But they are heroes, and we owe them a sincere debt of gratitude — for what they’ve accomplished so far, and for what lies ahead.
Time will tell what’s left of the woods when the Wallow Fire has finally finished burning, but this much we know: One of the most beautiful places in the world, one of my favorite places in Arizona, is being destroyed, and it’ll never be the same. Not in my lifetime, not in your lifetime, and not in the lifetime of the perpetrator who ignited this mess. I have no expectation that the authorities will ever track down the people responsible for the three large fires now burning in Arizona, but at the very least, I hope they’re sitting at home, glued to their televisions and thinking, How in the hell could I have been so stupid?
Let’s learn from their mistakes, and let’s hope history quits repeating itself. Meanwhile, let’s all pray for rain.
(Image: The Wallow Fire. Source: US Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.)