The Forester’s Log
When firefighters start fires
I just returned last week from working on the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in central Arizona. Two separate fires, started two days apart on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, came together to form the largest fire in Arizona’s history, covering 468,638 acres with a fire perimeter of 218 miles. I am sure we will learn a lot of lessons from this huge and awesome firestorm that swept across the Mogollon Rim. This fire burned 423 homes and businesses in communities as far as fifty miles apart, not to mention devastating miles and miles of natural resources.
One of the disturbing features of the event was that people intentionally started both of these blazes.
During our suppression efforts, one of the firefighters working on the blaze was arrested for starting the Rodeo portion of the fire. Since arson investigations often take months or years before the case is cracked, it was unusual that an arrest was made before the fire was even contained. As a result, people—especially the media—started asking how firefighters feel about firefighters starting fires. There is no simple answer, and all of the almost five thousand firefighters involved in this particular incident probably have their own opinion on the subject. For the record, here are a few of my own thoughts.
First, I think it is important to keep the issue in perspective. With a nod to Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm, Arizona State University fire researcher Stephen Pyne dubbed this fire “The Perfect Fire” because the conditions involving the weather, fuels, and topography combined for the most extreme fire behavior ever witnessed in the Southwest. Even so, I have a difficult time believing that the emergency firefighter who is said to have started this blaze had any idea of how “perfect” these conditions were. If it is true that he started the fire to initiate an employment opportunity, I suspect he only expected a few days worth of work and a few acres burned. What made this fire international news was not the source of ignition, but the ferocity and pace with which it marched across the Arizona landscape.
Still we come back to the issue that one of the initial ignitions of this blaze involved a firefighter. On the day the arrest was announced, I found myself on the phone, live, on national television. The anchorwoman asked me point-blank what I thought about a firefighter starting this fire. She tried to put words in my mouth to get me to say how sickened and disappointed I was in my fellow worker. I did not feel this way. On the contrary, I was pretty darn proud of the firefighters I was working with. The men and women on the front lines had saved many homes and even whole neighborhoods. For days, we had been on pins and needles worried about what more the flames would claim. Hard work had paid off and we had rounded a significant corner in containing the fire. There was no way I was going say I was disappointed in firefighters. They are my heroes. The anchorwoman finally gave up.
In every population, there are some people who make bad choices and do bad things. The roughly five thousand firefighters involved in this particular incident did not include the thousands of firefighters working on other fires in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and South Dakota at the same time. Personally, I see no reason to lose my faith in the firefighting community because of this one person. Whether the fire-starter was also a firefighter is not significant. This was the action of one person and does not reflect on his gender, his race, his family, his profession, or any other group with which he might be associated.
I am as sickened by this ignition as I am by any other ignition caused by ignorance and lack of respect for fire conditions. When someone starts a fire in the dry, vulnerable forest for personal reasons, whether it is to signal help, create a job, salvage a relationship, or whatever sad justification is given, that person has committed a crime against the land and the people. As a society, we need to clearly communicate intolerance for this type of behavior.
So what about firefighters starting fires? Honestly, we do start fires all the time, using fires both in suppression and management activities. The vast majority of us just would not start a fire outside of these situations. I, for one, remain extremely proud of the men and women fighting fires today.