Some paced up and down the frontage road, the glow of orange flames reflecting off beads of sweat on their foreheads. Others sat on a guardrail, wringing their hands and staring off into space — glancing up when the explosions detonated.
Teresa Barnes tugged the towel from around her neck and started waving it in the air.
“You guys aren’t doing anything, you’re just letting it burn,” she screamed into the smoky darkness, tears streaming down her face.
Barnes had just learned her trailer was on fire from All Bikes owner Ron Adler, who had watched the flames lap up her house like a piece of tissue paper.
The crews had no fire hydrants and so had only water hauled from Payson in six tanker trucks to fight the flames, so they could do little to save Barnes’ home in the Rye mobile home park, which butted up against Adler’s crowded salvage yard.
For 18 hours, crews battled a fiery beast in Adler’s yard. The demon reared its head with 30-foot flames, roared with the explosion of propane and acetylene tanks, spit scrap metal and ate through six structures and a massive collection of bicycles, motorcycles and scrap.
Investigators say they will likely never know what started the fire after crews destroyed all evidence bulldozing a path to fight
But one thing is clear: Unincorporated areas with no fire protection are a ticking time bomb set in the midst of thick tangles of brush and trees.
Rye, like Deer Creek, sits outside the response area of any fire department and many of the homes built under Gila County’s jurisdiction would not pass current fire codes.
Rim Country fire departments shuttled in trucks and crews voluntarily Saturday from already strapped districts, with no legal obligation to respond. However, all of Rim Country could go up in flames as a result of a fire that started in one of those unincorporated islands in a vast expanse of tinder-dry brush.
“The whole reason we were there was to stop the spread into the forest and ultimately into Payson,” said Battalion Chief Dan Bramble with Payson Fire. “That was our main objective.”
Crews struggled to keep the fire in its pen and out of the forest where it could run up the bushy slopes and into Payson.
Due to a lack of water, crews had no way to save many of the homes against the southern side of the salvage yard. Moreover, the constant explosion of propane tanks in the mountains of bikes and scrap posed a grave, potential danger to crews.
Given the danger, the fire management team resolved to minimize the risk to their crews. “We will not risk firefighters’ lives for properties that are already lost,” Bramble said.
Crews saved part of Adler’s collection, the Rye restaurant and many more homes in the mobile home park. There were also no injuries.
“The most important thing in my mind was the safety of my people and the residents,” said one fire official. “That was foremost on my mind.”
For the residents of the mobile home park, it started as just another blazing hot day in Rye.
Park resident David and his two daughters, Linda, 5, and Robin, 8, were feeding chickens with their grandpa. At her trailer, Danielle Rutan was getting ready to take shower. And at Teresa Barnes’ home, she and Ron Adler, 59, were working on a fence in the yard.
All said they heard a commotion and looked to see flames spreading across woodpiles near the back of the All Bikes salvage yard.
The woodpiles were likely the seed of the fire, which spread to a tree, then brush and into Adler’s dizzying collection of cars and bikes, said Det. George Ratliff with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
Adler jumped the fence and grabbed a garden hose, watering the area until deputies told him to leave. He continued to sneak onto the property repeatedly to hose off his home and his prized collection of some 9,000 motorcycles, more than twice that many bicycles and dozens of vehicles, including a collection of 1954 cars — the same year he was born.
Sweating, Adler finally took a seat on the guardrail near the Rye restaurant. He said he had just come from Barnes’ trailer, where he had snuck in to get a drink, some food and change out of his wet pants. He left when he heard the vehicles near the fence explode and smoke filled the trailer.
Adler spoke calmly while recounting his escape, but grew agitated when discussing the firefighting efforts. He said he did not understand why crews weren’t putting more water on the fire.
A fire management team, made up of officials from Payson Fire, GCSO and the Forest Service, said crews did all they could with the six water tender trucks, shuttling back and forth to Payson to get water. “Every drop we put on that fire came from Payson,” one official said.
Crews trucked in more than 100,000 gallons of water, 3,000 gallons at a time.
Each truck provided roughly six minutes of water before running out.
It took eight hours to get the fire under control and another 10 hours before crews could go home.
While firefighters tackled the blaze inside the salvage yard, several Hotshot crews waited on the perimeter, ready to go into action if the fire jumped to the forest.
Fire officials said managing the scene was “complex” with multiple explosions, flying scrap metal and tanks of flammable gas in the yard.
“There were significant life safety hazards in the area,” one official said.
Reportedly, a large piece of scrap metal landed just a few feet from Payson Ranger District Fire Management Officer Don Nunley. Crews later found a fire extinguisher in the median of Highway 87 that the fire had blown from the yard.
“It was burning pretty good,” said resident Danielle Rutan, who sat on the guardrail, a small oxygen machine strapped to her back. Rutan, who lived through two house fires, said this by far the worst.
She worried the fire would reach her home where two 170-pound oxygen tanks sat, just recently filled. “I figure if my house goes, I need my truck,” she said pointing to a rusty 1974 pickup.
Rutan’s home was one of those saved.
Adler, however, lost most everything. His home, which sat near the center of the lot, burned to the ground, taking with it the antique furniture inside.
His shop is also gone, along with thousands of bikes, motorcycles and vehicles.
Adler opened the lot, which functioned as a tire, towing, bike repair, sales and road service business, in Rye some 25 years ago. With his lifelong passion that bordered on obsession with collecting, he quickly filled the two-acre lot with stuff amassed over 40 years.
“It looked like mess from out front, but it was organized,” he said.
As he watched it all burn, Adler said he felt sick.
“I mean this is real bad, real bad,” he said, adding he has no insurance.
A fire official said crews saved quite a few cars and bikes along the north and west side of the lot.
And might have saved more if they’d had a water supply and the trailers hadn’t been so close to each other and the salvage yard.
“That is why we have fire codes,” said one firefighter.
In all, seven agencies and 35 personnel worked on the fire.
“It was definitely challenging knowing there were limited resources to call,” a fire official said. “We run very thin and our resources are very quickly depleted on a major fire.”
Depleted from shouting, Barnes threw the towel back around her shoulders.
“I’ve lost everything,” she said walking into the darkness, the glow of orange flames on her back.
To purchase pictures from this fire, click here: All Bikes