Sunday, May 8, 2011 was Mother’s Day, and over 500 visitors were either touring the Picket Post Mansion during the final day of the Open House, or just enjoying late spring in all its glory at the Arboretum. When the fire was first spotted, it was small — as all fires are at the beginning– and an unthreatening two miles west of the Arboretum. A visitor driving eastbound on Highway 60 reported the fire to Lynnea Spencer at the Gift Shop and Lynnea immediately called 911. Chris Spencer, who was running a van shuttle to transport visitors to and from Picket Post House, dropped off his passengers and drove westward on Highway 60 towards the fire to get a closer look and report back to Mark Siegwarth on the fire’s progression. Soon after turning south onto Forest Road 231 (the road that links Highway 60 to Picket Post Trailhead), Forest Service engines and their attendant crews began to arrive, quickly catching and then passing Chris on the narrow dirt road.
When the engines pulled up to the scene, it was 12:30pm. The fire had been burning for about an hour and was four acres in size. The structural fire departments of Superior and Queen Valley were already at the site. The Forest Service had planned to fight the fire directly by anchoring and flanking it with water and hand tools, but, because of strong winds, the head of the fire was moving too quickly. They wanted to keep it south of FS 231 and the Picket Post Trailhead junction, but it was a “red flag day” with winds steady at 10mph, gusting to 30mph. These strong southwest winds caused the fire to “come flying across the road,” as Fire Management Officer Quentin Johnson from the Globe Ranger District put it, forcing the firefighters to pull back from their ridge.
This wild-land conflagration was now officially christened the “Picket Fire” by the U. S. Forest Service. Tom Morgan, from the Globe Ranger District, was appointed the Incident Commander (IC) to direct the tactical and logistical efforts in fighting the fire. Preferring to be called simply “Morgan,” we had no idea how much we would be relying on his skills and those of all of the other firefighters in the coming seven hours.
Several miles to the east, Mark Siegwarth was keeping tabs on the developing situation with a clear view of the fire from the promontory of Picket Post Mansion, as he and other staff and volunteers hosted the Open House. Chris had just returned and reported that firefighters were on the scene and working the fire, and there did not appear to be any immediate danger to the Arboretum. However, about a half hour later, Chris made another reconnaissance to the fire area and saw for himself what firefighters were now dealing with: The fire had increased to about 10 acres, more than doubling its size in 30 minutes, and was moving very close to Highway 60. Even more troubling, an eastward push of wind appeared to be driving the fire simultaneously towards the Arboretum. Chris raced back to the Arboretum to inform Mark and told him, “I think we have to do something. It’s coming our way.” At nearly the same instant, Superior police drove through the gate and gave Mark the same appraisal of the fire’s aggressive run towards our direction. With these two corroborating reports, Mark made the decision to evacuate the Arboretum. It was 1:30pm.
Staff reacted quickly by notifying all visitors throughout the grounds to immediately start walking towards their vehicles. The sense of urgency for everyone was palpable, reinforced by the increasingly visible smoke plume growing in the western sky. Picket Post Open House visitors either walked back to the parking lots via the Main Trail or were transported in our shuttle van. All of our trails and exhibits were systematically patrolled by BTA staff on foot or by golf carts and bicycles. Each staff member reported back to Mark Siegwarth by radio. The responses came in quickly.
“Chihuahuan trail. Clear.”
“High Trail. Clear.”
“Picket Post House. Clear.”
“Main Trail. Clear.”
In a remarkable 35 minutes, all visitors were evacuated, leaving the main parking lot clear by 2:05pm and ready to receive the emergency and fire vehicles that were on their way as the fire spread eastward.
To many of the firefighters that began to arrive in the next half hour, the Arboretum was already a familiar place. In May of 2010, personnel from the Globe Ranger District spent two days assessing our fire readiness and helping us to develop a defensive, pre-attack fire plan. Together, we reduced fuel sources such as red brome grass on both sides of Queen Creek, and pruned trees along the creek that could carry fire across their canopies. We identified and improved fire barriers such as roads and trails, and created new barriers where they were needed. Firefighters became familiar with our water sources, vehicle access points, trail systems, and our staff. All this was done so that fire crews “could hit the ground running” if the unthinkable might ever come to pass. Now, just one year later, the Picket Fire was about to put the plan to the test.
The fire had reached 15 acres by 1:30 and hit Highway 60 hard, crossing two wide asphalt lanes into the median. Firefighters had hoped to “burnout” areas in front of the fire to deny it fuel, but the gusty, erratic winds were moving the fire so quickly that they were forced into a more defensive posture of protecting motorists and structures along the highway, and people, collection plants and structures at the Arboretum. As firefighters began to pull back, Morgan, the IC, made the call to evacuate the Arboretum, not knowing that Mark had already given the order minutes earlier. Because of fire, smoke, poor visibility and to ensure firefighter and motorist safety, DPS and ADOT began the process of closing Highway 60. The road wouldn’t reopen again until five hours later.
With all visitors safely evacuated, Arboretum staff turned its efforts towards the five volunteers and staff members who lived in the residences on the west side of the Arboretum grounds and were directly in the path of the western flank of the approaching fire. Propane and electric lines were disconnected from two recreational vehicles, one of which was safely towed into nearby Superior. The owners of the other motor home were away and couldn’t be reached. Their ignition keys couldn’t be found either, so Lacey Pacheco and volunteer Kate Griffith had no choice but to scoop up the dog and cat they found inside and take them home for the night.
By 2:40, the fire had doubled in size again, reaching 30 acres as it continued to burn its way rapidly towards us.
Firefighters and equipment had begun to arrive in earnest after 3:00 and crews started to burnout the fuels on the hillside that led from the shop and maintenance area up to the road that goes up and over water tank hill. Steve Carter and his wife Ruth, along with their vehicles and pets, had now evacuated their residence (the house nearest the highway). Arboretum and private vehicles were moved into the safety of the asphalt main parking lot, adding to the growing collection of emergency vehicles. The leading edge of the smoke plume could now be seen moving around the north side of water tank hill, aiming for a direct hit on Steve’s house and the front gate.
Fire crews had now completed their pullback from the west and were maintaining a defensive position at the Arboretum. Morgan had a radio in one ear and cell phone in the other, barking orders to ground crews and maintaining radio contact with the approaching slurry bomber and helicopters he had ordered earlier. Chris Spencer, along with Steve Smith, acted as primary staff liaisons to the firefighters. They provided maps, and helped them to find water hydrants and negotiate the grounds with their vehicles and equipment. Chris and Steve used heavy equipment to cut a new fire break, at Morgan’s request, from the maintenance shop down to Queen Creek as an added fire barrier.
It was 3:25 and smoke was beginning to blow more heavily across the parking lot. “This,” Mark later described adroitly, “is when things began to get kind of hairy.”
The fire had already jumped Highway 60 to the north in numerous places, consuming a quarter mile of wooden guard rail posts as it moved precariously closer to us. Flames ignited the six inch plastic water line that carries irrigation water from our West well to the Ayer Lake, causing most of it to collapse, melt, and slowly burn for the next several days, leaving only a black “skid mark” on the ground to remind anyone that it ever existed.
Nearly horizontal flames shot across the back side of water tank hill and reached the west side of Steve’s house, briefly igniting old pine needles and eucalyptus leaves that had accumulated on the corrugated metal roof of his garage. That fire was quickly extinguished, as were the flames rising from plastic nursery containers, scraps of wood, and other combustibles that briefly caught fire around his house.
From here, the wind-driven fire quickly sliced across the remaining 100 feet of distance to the west side of the main gate. It ran up the trunks of 20 feet tall date palms and ignited the fronds above. Equally valuable Mediterranean fan palms, large yuccas, agaves, and aloes, along with several shoestring acacias, beefwood trees, and other collection plants were severely blackened before the fire leaped across the highway to the north. With collection plants still visibly on fire, a slurry bomber made its initial reconnaissance pass and then, about 3:35, dropped 2000 gallons of pink-red fire retardant (slurry) across the main parking lot, highway, and the south-facing slope to the north. With the consistency and color of Pepto Bismol, it hit its targeted plants, but also spattered asphalt, vehicles, and anything or anyone else along its path. Because of this timely and accurate slurry drop, and quick work by firefighters, the plants at the front gate were the only accessioned collection plants that were lost or damaged during the fire.
During this time, two helicopters were also actively flying the Picket Fire. They dipped their suspended “Bambi” water buckets into Ayer Lake, and spent most of the afternoon crisscrossing the Arboretum, dousing hot spots with precise hits of 125 gallons of water. With the close proximity of Ayer Lake, roundtrips from water source to fire and back took pilots as little as five minutes. Guided by Morgan and other crew members on the ground, the quick turnaround time allowed the helicopters to hammer the fire hard with each release of their 1000-pound payloads of water.
Morgan called in another aerial tanker that dropped a second load of slurry further north to protect private residences that were located a quarter mile to the east. By 5:30, there were still hotspots, but the fire had slowed on the north side of the highway and the structures were no longer threatened.
The more worrisome fire was now to the southwest, moving across the slopes of the Queen and Arnett Creek drainages. One particularly aggressive prong of the fire was racing unchecked up the hillside behind the far western portion of the High Trail. It topped out and ignited a thick stand of creosote bush, generating tall, crackling flames and high volumes of smoke. Mark and Lynnea could see these flames from the Visitor Center, but they couldn’t accurately gauge the distance because of the many trees that partially blocked their view. Neither of them could rule out the possibility that the fire may have already jumped Queen Creek — and moved into the Eucalyptus forest.