As the Wallow fire grew, command called air support. But due to the winds, all they could do was watch it grow. Between 3 and 3:30 p.m., a Forest Service helicopter stationed in Springerville took off to observe and report on the Wallow Fire.
The pilot noticed winds of 25 to 30 knots buffeting the helicopter as he approached two columns of smoke.
The smoke from the largest fire was in the Bear Wallow area, while three miles away more smoke snaked into the sky.
Investigators later determined an ember from the Wallow Fire, carried by intense winds, had found another dry patch of fuel.
The pilot of the helicopter reported that the Bear Wallow Fire was only 50 acres in size and the spot fire only five acres.
Dispatch ordered the pilot to return to base due to the winds.
“We were unable to take any suppression action on either fire due to high winds,” said the helicopter pilot.
Show Low Dispatch then requested an Air Attack plane.
As the plane circled the fire, 60-knot winds hit the plane, forcing the pilot to turn back as well. In fact, those winds made command decide to not send any other air support to the fire.
“I contacted the initial Incident Commander for the Wallow Fire via radio,” said the pilot. “We discussed the high winds in the area and decided not to order any additional aviation resources.”
Nor did the pilot believe boots on the ground could control the fire, because of limited access and difficult terrain.
“I did not feel ground forces could safely take suppression action on the main fire due to its location in the Wallow Creek drainage and limited access to the area,” said the pilot in his report.
Nothing they could do
And so the first day of the Wallow Fire passed with little ability to fight it.
Officials could only leave it to burn.
One pilot reported his frustration, “Got a new start today in the Bear Wallow wilderness area (Wallow Fire). We did a re-con, but couldn’t take any action because of the high winds … Wallow Fire is going to cook. Already spotted a mile out and the spot was growing quick. Too bad we couldn’t do anything.”
And that’s what happened for the remainder of the first week of the fire.
Unremitting winds drove the fire toward Alpine and then Greer and Springerville.
At the height of the fire, those working the fire said it took eight hours to drive around the perimeter.
The fire required three Type 1 teams with an area command team above them.
All the firefighters could try to do was to divert the fire around places like Alpine instead of through it, said Sam Whitted, the liaison coordinator for area command.
Fortunately, the firefighters had a secret weapon to deploy against the monster — their own silver bullet against a seemingly unstoppable beast — The White Mountain Stewardship Project.
The innovative forest restoration and thinning program several years earlier had cleared a series of buffer zones on the edge of the community. The treatments reduced tree densities from about 500 to 1,000 trees per acre to more like 100 trees per acre. Most importantly, they cleared out the brush and saplings and thinned the trees so their branches no longer interlocked.
The project saved those communities.
“A fire like the Wallow is so large and so intense that you can’t stop it, so we took actions to have the fire go around small communities, rather than through those communities,” said Whitted. “We used burnouts, sprinkler systems and other tactics to make that happen … the number of structures we did save was an incredible piece of good work.”
In the end, their strategy and the previous thinning projects kept the structural damage to 32 residences (22 in Greer) and four commercial buildings.
Nor did the Wallow Fire cause any human deaths, only injuries.
However, the fire did kill one of the tied up dogs. On June 12, the investigation team found one of the two dogs remained tied to a tree.
“Upon arrival in the general origin area, we located a campsite that had numerous personal items and two dogs. One of the dogs was deceased and the other dog was very emaciated, but still alive,” wrote the Forest Service investigators.”
Fined $3.7 million
A year after the Wallow Fire, a court found the cousins guilty of accidentally starting the largest wildfire in Arizona history. The judge ordered them to pay $3.7 million in damages to private property. The Forest Service also spent $103 million fighting the fire. The cousins asked the court to accept monthly payments of $750.
At that rate, it will take 4,900 years to pay off their debt.
Five years after the Wallow Fire, the hills around Alpine have returned to their green color. Without competition from fir and pine trees, the aspen have taken off.
Shelly said it’s starting to look better, but thoughts of the Wallow Fire are never far from her mind.
“It was a moonscape after if was over,” she said. “It broke my heart.”
Still, she loves her town and is grateful for its survival. She still owns the Escudillo Cabins in Alpine. Her website proudly claims, “Come visit Alpine, we survived the Wallow Fire and would love to have you visit our beautiful town. We might have scars, but we’re still standing!!!”
WALLOW FIRE TIMELINE
May 29 – Fire starts from unattended campfire.
May 30 – Wallow Fire grows to 1,400 acres.
May 31 – Wallow Fire grows to 2,616 acres. Hannagan Meadow and KP campgrounds close.
June 1 – Wallow Fire grows to 18,000 acres. Highway 191 closed. Sprucedale, Beaver Creek Ranch, Beaverhead, Brentwood evacuated.
June 2 – Fire grows from 40,509 to 100,000 acres. Alpine evacuated. Big Lake, Gabaldon campground and Mount Baldy Wilderness closed.
June 3 – Nutrioso evacuated. 106,000 acres.
June 4 – Wallow Fire at 140,000 acres.
June 6 – Greer and Sunrise Park Resort evacuated.
June 8 – Springerville, Eagar and South Fork evacuated. Fire arrives at Greer.
June 10 – Highway between Eagar and McNary closes.
June 12 – Springerville, Eagar, South Fork evacuations lifted.
June 16 – South Eagar returns to pre-evacuation notice.
June 18 – Luna, N.M. evacuated. Alpine residents return.
June 20 – Greer residents allowed home.
July 13 – Wallow Fire 100 percent contained.
538,049 acres burned (817 square miles).
100,000 evacuated. No injuries or deaths.
32 residences, four commercial buildings, 36 outbuildings and one vehicle destroyed.
$109 million (cost to fight).
Equipment - 15 helicopters, five air tankers, 196 engines, 72 water tenders, 21 dozers.
8 hours to drive around the perimeter.
Spark by Pia Wyer