Wildfires And Hot Shots


The summer we moved to Payson, we were introduced to wildfires. It was the first of July 2004 and a fire called Willow was raging not far west of town. We went down to the lovely town park for a picnic on the Fourth, but falling ash was too thick to ignore. The fireworks display was canceled, anyway, so we drove back home and wondered if we should be a bit more concerned.

Telephone calls the next few days from back in South Carolina and Georgia, from which we had moved, kept inquiring whether we were in any danger. We assured everyone that in spite of reports on CNN and in other news media, Payson was not about to burn to the ground. But we were definitely concerned.

Thankfully, that fire was brought under control shortly afterward with no loss of life. One hundred twenty thousand acres of forestland was destroyed, though, and many homes and other dwellings. It was scary, and it was tragic, but it was also exciting to be in the national spotlight. That's the way we saw it then.

We didn't know of a fire only two years earlier that had devoured more than 460,000 acres of forest and many more homes than the Willow Fire. Also east of Payson, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire was, and remains, Arizona's largest wildfire by a large margin. We would hear it referred to many times in the first weeks of July and August 2004. Had we been living in Payson at the time of that fire, I'm certain we would have been very concerned, indeed.

The Cave Creek Fire was our next encounter with out-of-control forest fires, and it took out 250,000 acres of forest, this time west of Payson. We had friends in Strawberry and Pine by then, and we all worried. Again, fortunately, no one was hurt and our friends were safe.

East and west of Payson, almost 750,000 acres of forest has been destroyed by fire. I have spoken with officials from the U.S. Forest Service who say that only by the grace of God and heroic work by Hot Shot crews have Payson and other communities been spared. Were we concerned? Of course. But did we ever feel really threatened? No. We took it for granted that the fires would be kept away from our town and our friends. We counted on the Forest Service and other firefighters to save us. Thankfully, they were good at their jobs, and we owe them an eternal debt of gratitude.

Perhaps you know of another fire near to Payson, one that occurred in 1990. It was called the Dude Fire, and it "only" burned 28,000 acres of forest. It was responsible for destroying the Zane Grey cabin after a restoration and it also devoured quite a few other homes and ranches. It was a wicked fire that exploded during a hot, dry summer as a result of a lightning strike.

Like other wildfires, the Dude Fire was quickly attacked by teams of Hot Shots, some from as far away as Utah. Airplanes and helicopters poured millions of gallons of water and retardant on the fire and firebreaks were cleared wherever possible. Every effort was made to control the fire, and eventually it, too, was brought down. Only this time, six lives were lost -- firefighters "burned over." One of them lies buried in Payson cemetery, and a monument to their heroism stands at the entrance to the museum at Green Valley Park.

The six -- one woman supervisor and five men -- were a work party on special release from Perryville State Prison. They were incarcerated for relatively minor felonies and were considered model prisoners. They were well trained and did their job well, but it seems they had too often been in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, the place was commendable, but the timing was horrific.

There were 17 in all, and the rest went back and served out their time in prison. The five who died were finally given a commuted sentence after a bitter fight in the state legislature. One severely burned inmate was later released, but with no medical or other benefits. He died soon after.

This summer is shaping up to be another dangerous period for potential wildfires. The conditions are increasingly worrisome. By the grace of God and the good work of firefighters, we have been spared in the past. Let's all pray that well-trained and courageous Hot Shots will once again come to our rescue if needed -- even "Them Convicts" -- if any are available.

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