A dangerous fool. A breezeless morning.
A good Samaritan. And four firefighters.
These elements provided a “whew” moment and a happy ending to an apparently deliberately set fire across from Payson High School in a brush-choked vacant lot pressing close up against an apartment complex.
“So it starts,” said Payson Fire Department Battalion Chief Tom Fife, in rueful reference to the fire season. He gestured eloquently toward the lot so choked with manzanita, juniper and pine saplings that you couldn’t walk 3 feet in a straight line.
Fife said someone had almost certainly deliberately set the fire in the decaying end of a downed log.
“Hopefully, we don’t have some fire bug out there. All you need to do is get something going in one of these lots and it’ll start throwing embers everywhere,” said Fife, gesturing toward the nearby cluster of apartment buildings.
This time, the neighborhood got two lucky breaks.
First, the morning remained still and clear — despite the strong winds reported yesterday.
Second, not only did someone report the rising smoke quickly, but a quick-thinking good Samaritan with a shovel in his vehicle charged in and kept the fire contained to the burning log until fire crews arrived.
“I think he worked for the parking lot sweeping service,” said Fife of the passing citizen who kept the blaze from spreading. “It’s not something we recommend the average citizen take on, but he had a shovel and knew what he was doing,” said Fife.
The quick-thinking hero gave the arriving firefighters a friendly wave, a pat on the back and went on his way without mentioning his name — the Lone Ranger with a shovel.
Fife said the incident underscores the need for property owners to clear brush and small trees from their property — especially vacant lots.
The town can order lots cleared of brush if they present a fire hazard, but the process is often costly and time-consuming.
“A lot of times, we have a hard time even finding the owner,” said Fife, “it’s a post office box in Los Angeles or something.”
The brush fires in town and up along the Rim signal a potential early start to the fire season. The region enjoyed a wet winter, which recharged reservoirs — but the winter storms gave way to a bone-dry spring.
As a result, the trees, grass and underbrush area already drying out. Normally, the fire danger in Rim Country peaks in June, just before the arrival of the summer monsoons.
However, on Monday the crew limited the fire to the end of the log — thanks to the mystery citizen, a quick 911 call and a three-minute response time for the fire crew.
“We just have too many lots like this in town,” said Fife. “And it’s not just an awareness thing — it’s something that has to be acted on every day.”