Sunday, May 8, 4:00 pm. The Picket Fire is 200 acres in size and growing fast.
Arboretum staff members on site were now reduced to a core half dozen, paired off into three groups for safety. Mark Siegwarth was quarterbacking staff efforts and interfacing with Morgan, the Incident Commander (IC). Lynnea Spencer was in the Gift Shop monitoring the base station radio and handling telephone calls. Chris Spencer, now donning a bright yellow, official “Nomex” fire shirt, teamed up with Steve Smith to interface directly with fire fighters on the grounds. Steve Carter and Jeff Payne double-checked that the dozens of widely dispersed irrigation valves around the grounds were shut off so that fire fighters would have maximum water availability to re-fill their trucks and fully charge their hoses.
While most fires are managed to protect fire fighter and public safety and to minimize damage to property and structures, the U.S. Forest Service was also aware of the uniqueness and importance of the Arboretum’s trees and other plants. Forest Service briefings for fire fighters included specific instructions to protect the Arboretum’s plant collections as an integral third leg of the top most important priorities. “Buildings can be rebuilt,” Mark Siegwarth explained to one of the television news crews that descended upon the Arboretum on Sunday, “but all of the plants we planted in 1926, 1928, 1930 — we can’t replace those.”
The anxiety shared by Mark and Lynnea was growing as they watched the distant flames above the High Trail appear to surge closer the south side of Queen Creek. “I can see the fire through the trees!” Lynnea exclaimed, looking through the Gift Shop window. What she couldn’t see was that a twenty-foot embankment and a paltry thirty feet of rocky creek bottom was all that separated the approaching fire from a dozen of the oldest and largest trees in the Arboretum. Fire Management Officer Quentin Johnson would later say that there was a 95% chance of ignition if one of the thousands of floating embers made its way into the bone dry mixture of tamarisk and beefwood needles on the “collection side” of the creek.
With things looking increasingly grim, Mark and Lynnea ran the short distance to the Smith Building and yanked cords, wires, and connectors from the two computers that contained our plant records database and the electronic versions of our historical images and documents. Should the worst case scenario occur – and it was looking like that might happen — it would be a double tragedy to lose both our plant collection and the historical documentation and data that backs it up. As long as they moved quickly, Mark felt confident that they could make at least one trip safely. Between them, they grabbed the two computers, accession books, computer disks and whatever else their cumulative adrenalin and strength would allow them to carry. In less than ten minutes, they had lugged everything back to the Visitor Center on foot and loaded it all into a vehicle in the main parking lot. Computers in the administration office were also removed, ready to be driven off site.
Morgan was keenly watching the potentially explosive scene develop above the High Trail from his command post in the overflow parking lot. Behind him, more engines and crews were still coming in the front gate. The larger body of the fire was spreading out and moving up the north-faces of Pancho Plateau and Picket Post Mountain, but his immediate attention was fixed on the fully engulfed vegetation burning at the doorstep of the Arboretum’s plant collections, just 200 yards away from where he was standing.
It was nearly 6:00 pm now and another air tanker that Morgan had wisely ordered earlier was just minutes away. He also requested that two more be on standby, each ready to be loaded with fire retardant slurry and airborne within minutes of receiving the order. At full capacity, each of these planes can carry nearly ten tons of the thick pink liquid in their bellies.
Thick gray and black smoke continued to belch in irregular pulses as the fire consumed one creosote bush and then another on the slope above the High Trail. Rounded plumes of smoke were pushed upstream by the wind, making the fire appear to be racing up the canyon. Morgan’s view from the parking lot was partially cut-off by the tall trees in the Demonstration Garden, so the high volume of smoke rising above the trees was all he had to go on in deciding his next move. “It was so hot and rolling,” Chris told me later, “that it must have looked to him like all of Queen Creek was on fire.”
That was, in fact, the scenario that was now running through Morgan’s mind. He ran the short distance to the Visitor Center and told Mark to radio Chris and Steve immediately. “Get them out now,” he told him. “It’s running again and we can’t vouch for their safety.” Mark quickly relayed the message to Chris and Steve who jumped into their golf cart, thinking, like the rest of us, that the fire had already made the transition into the crowns of our cultivated trees.
“Ember wash” is the term used by wild land firefighters to describe the burning embers that are the byproducts of an approaching fire, often preceding the fire’s leading edge by a wide margin. They are either propelled by the prevailing wind, by convection from the fire itself, or a combination of both. These floating castoffs of incomplete combustion were launching from the west end of the high trail like the resultant splatter of water dropped into a pan of hot oil. Each ember was a lit match, floating dumbly but maliciously towards new fuels to colonize.
Morgan was able to confirm from the air that the fire had not spread as far up the canyon as he had feared, so he asked Chris to drive Johnny, one of the team leaders, onto the grounds with the golf cart to familiarize him with trails, roads, water sources, and access points for fire vehicles. Once they had passed Mr. Big, they saw through the thinner patches of smoke that the fire had indeed moved up the canyon, but had paused for the moment, smoldering at the base of thirty-foot-tall rock face near the top of the ridge.
The fiercest, most threatening part of the fire was quickly consuming dense fuels on the hilltop just above the High Trial. When Chris and Johnny arrived, intense, creosote-fed flames generated volumes of expanding smoke and spit out embers that drifted into the higher branches of the red gum eucalyptus trees, ready to ignite one of the resinous leaves above their heads or free fall into the tinder dry leaf litter at their feet. Even worse, actual flame tips appeared to be licking the arching branches of the red gums that extended over Queen Creek, but it was impossible to tell for sure through the smoke. Johnny radioed Morgan and requested an immediate water drop.
A helicopter quickly responded with a full Bambi bucket freshly dipped from Ayer Lake. The pilot hovered over the hotspot, made a few brief adjustments to his position as he took aim, and then let loose with a perfectly placed water drop that knocked down the flames as if an airtight lid had been thrown over the fire. “It couldn’t have done it any better,” Chris said. The force of the water instantaneously transformed leaping flames in a harmless, pewter-colored mixture of steam and suspended ash that floated upstream with the wind.
This direct hit on the most worrisome part of the fire proved to be as much of a psychological victory as it was a show of firefighting prowess. After seeing the flames snuffed out directly in front of them, Chris leaned over to Johnny and said, “We have a chance now.” Several successive water drops followed as the fire briefly flared, but the clear and present danger was over. In a conversation a few days later, both Chris and Morgan concurred that the suppression of this hot spot was a major turning point in the fight to save the Arboretum.
With clouds of smoky steam still roiling from the dowsed hotspot, the third slurry bomber that Morgan had ordered rumbled directly over Chris and Johnny’s heads as it made its first reconnaissance pass over Silver King Wash. Not wanting to be prettied in pink, they returned to the safety of the upper parking lot; Morgan verified that all the other firefighters and BTA staff were clear of the slurry’s intended path. At 6:18, the twin engine bomber came in low from the east, barely above the trees, and dropped its load from the Desert Legume Garden to the Outback Bridge and everything in between. With the Eucalyptus trees along the creek thoroughly covered in retardant, firefighters could now use Silver King Wash as a wide, safe corridor for a direct attack from the grounds if needed.
The southward encroachment of the fire had been slowed, and the Arboretum was much safer than it was thirty minutes ago, but the bulk of the fire to the south and west was still far from contained. The fire had come this far and this fast by using the spring season’s left-over and thoroughly-dry red brome grass as a fuse to bridge the gaps from plant to plant. With the strong south and southwest winds, fire quickly incinerated brittlebush and then moved on to ignite the woodier and hotter burning sub-shrubs like flat-top buckwheat, turpentine brush, snakeweed, and fairy duster, leaving nothing but dinner-plate size circles of white ash surrounded by a larger donut of charred black. The somewhat less flammable but more vulnerable pincushion cacti and, to a lesser extent, hedgehogs, were overwhelmed, victims of collateral damage.
As evening approached, the wind had diminished and flames were starting to lie down. The two helicopters continued dowsing hot spots until darkness grounded them. Firefighters worked through the night in Queen and Arnette canyons, but because of the treacherously steep south-facing slope of Picket Post Mountain, they allowed the fire to burn itself out when it ran into the base of the vertical rock bluffs that extend down from the summit. The fire burned up most of the western half of the north face of Pancho Plateau but never ran over the top.
The fire took a heavy toll on native vegetation. The boney, exposed frames of chollas were burned severely but the more densely growing prickly pears suffered less so, many showing signs of green life near the base. Most barrel cacti were roasted a leathery-tan color but with a hopeful amount of insulated green tissue buried deep within the clefts of many of the ribs. Palo verdes look dead; mesquites and catclaws, because of their thicker bark, may have fared better. The only reliably fire-adapted plant in the Sonoran Desert is the jojoba; it was burned to various degrees of completeness but will re-sprout vigorously and reliably from the base in the coming year. Though the wind “fanned the flames” in the most literal sense, it also kept the fire moving so that it rarely lingered too long in any one area, hopefully sparing most of the larger saguaros.
By Monday morning at 8:00 am, the fire was considered 40% contained. The Arboretum remained closed until Tuesday as firefighters continued to establish and maintain control lines, deal with flare-ups, and begin the process of mopping-up. The fire was declared 100% contained early Tuesday with a total burned acreage of 1336 acres, 160 acres of which are Arboretum property.
While firefighters suppressed the last stages of the fire on Monday and Tuesday, Arboretum began using high pressure hoses and stiff brooms to scrub the surfaces that were unlucky enough to be rained down upon by thick globs of pink retardant from the three slurry drops. The iron oxide infused fire retardant was completely indiscriminant in where it landed: unprotected camera lenses, clothing, vehicles, asphalt, concrete, wood, hair, and bare skin were as splattered as the trees and plants for which it was intended. Without prompt removal, the residual pink droplets have the tenacity of those from a can of latex paint of the same color, often remaining visible for years. As a helpful side-effect, slurry is formulated as a fertilizer with added plant nutrients such as phosphorous, so that none of the “scrubbings” that washed away were wasted.
The fire was human caused, though the exact manner in which it began has yet to be determined. The ignition point was several miles west of the Arboretum near a small, open area used for target shooting just off of Forest Road 231 near the Reymert Mine. It is littered with broken clay pigeons, shot gun shells, and other shell casings and is popular with shooting enthusiasts both locally and from the Phoenix area. An investigation is ongoing.
A compliment of 90 firefighters in all capacities participated in battling the fire, and we thank each and every one of them with all of our hearts.