Loading

CHAPTER 31 - WALLOW FIRE: NO ONE CAN STOP THIS MONSTER MICHELE NELSON

Shelly Thompson watched as the wall of 100-foot-high flames marched from the South Mountain top toward Alpine.

“Everyone had evacuated, we stayed because we are volunteer firefighters,” she said.

The ravening monster had proved unstoppable, exploding to 100,000 acres in two days. The wind-whipped flames devoured whole trees in a gulp, mocking the efforts of the firefighters.

The biggest fire in state history, the Wallow Fire would come to represent the new era of megafires.

Alpine seemed all but certain to feed the flames, a forested paradise perched on the abyss of catastrophe.

But in the end — the fate of Alpine would offer a different and surprising lesson in the age of megafires, brought on by a century of mismanagement and willful blindness.

Terrifying lessons of a monster fire

The Wallow Fire’s terrifying lessons began on Memorial Day weekend 2011, with “extreme” behavior from the moment it started. By the end of the first day, it had expanded to 18,000 acres. By the end of the second day, it covered 100,000 acres — triggering the evacuation of Alpine on June 2.

When the smoke finally cleared and the Forest Service declared the fire contained on July 13, the Wallow Fire had scorched 538,049 acres — an astonishing 817 square miles — half the size of Delaware.

The Wallow Fire offered sobering lessons for firefighters — and terrifying portents for homeowners.

In a forest crowded with drought-stricken tree thickets, one can’t control a wildfire that starts on a hot, dry, windy day. In those conditions, the fire will burn as long as it finds fuel.

When faced with a monster like the Wallow — all that matters is what you did before the fire came calling.

Embers spread the flames

Analysts say embers sped the Wallow Fire across the seared face of the forest. Winds carried the burning brands up to three miles ahead of the fire’s front. Experts, such as former wildland firefighter Bill Gabbert of the website Wildfire Today, say it’s impossible for firefighters to get ahead of a fire showing such extreme behavior.

Those embers quickly ignited tinder-dry ladder fuels. The fire then climbed to into tops of the trees. The resulting crown fire leaped from tree to tree faster than a horse can gallop.

The only way firefighters stand a chance of fighting such a crown fire is to back-burn or fight behind a thinned buffer zone, which forces the fire to drop to the ground.

Extreme weather, extreme behavior

Weather and fuel conditions affected the fire from its inception. The fire started from an abandoned campfire in the Bear Wallow Wilderness, according to a Forest Service report.

Cousins from Benson and Tucson came to the White Mountains for the Memorial Day weekend to camp and hang. They parked at the entrance to the 63 Trail near the Bear Wallow Canyon on Friday, May 28.

“We arrived on May 28, 2011 in my Corolla,” wrote one of the cousins in the Forest Service report. “We hiked about three miles down the Bear Wallow Canyon from the Forest Road 25. We made camp. We filtered some water and made a fire for steaks around 5 or 6 p.m.”

They went to sleep around 9 p.m. Their fire, they said, “had long since burned out (a few hours before sleep.)”

In the morning, they made another fire, cooked breakfast and hung out in camp, playing with their dogs before deciding to hike to the Black River. They left their dogs tied up at camp. The prior day, one of the two dogs had shown aggressive behavior toward another couple’s dog.

The candy wrapper test

Before leaving, they said they checked the fire by throwing candy wrappers on the ashes. When the wrappers didn’t burn, they decided the fire was out.

Yet the fire still smoldered. Soon, the wind revived the embers hidden below the ash.

The temperature that morning rose to around 69 degrees with 18 percent humidity. The winds, however, came out of the west at 18 miles per hour with gusts up to 33 miles per hour.

Those winds would later bedevil suppression efforts.

Worse yet, a dry winter and spring had left fuels tinder dry.

When Forest Service fire investigators examined the cousins’ campsite on June 12, they found evidence the fire had snaked out of the fire ring on fine dry grass fuels.

The cousins had set up camp in a small canyon surrounded by thick stands of ponderosa pines. On the ground, grasses grew thickly. Small shrubs and Gambel oak served as a perfect ladder fuel.

As investigators worked their way out from the campfire ring, they noticed “multiple spot fires that appeared to have ignited when embers were blown out of the main fire and into the outlying forest,” stated the report.

From that humble beginning, the fire sprinted up the steep slopes of the little canyon, enveloping trees in fire.

The smoke didn’t remain hidden for long.

On May 29, Forest Service Technician Chandra Van Slyke manned the Reno Fire Lookout, arriving for her shift between 9:30 and 10 a.m.

As she sat reading a book, Mark Brady, another Forest Service employee who manned Engine 1-2, “asked me to check on ‘smoke’ to the west of the fire lookout.” Brady and his crew were on high alert due to the weather and fuel conditions.

Wallow Fire Smoke

Van Slyke said she “got up, turned around and saw a large smoke column rising out of the Bear-Wallow drainage.”

The Show Low Interagency Dispatch Center log entry shows a call came in at 1:32 p.m. reporting white smoke.

By 2 p.m., the Maverick Fire Lookout reported “a lot of smoke — smoke dark gray.”

By 2:45 p.m. flames were visible.

At about this time, the cousins returned after a day of swimming and hiking. As they approached camp, they realized it was on fire.

“About half-way back, I smelled the smoke,” reported one cousin.

Fearing for their dogs, they ran quickly toward the camp only to have the flames come rushing at them.

“I ran a little farther and saw the flames in the canyon and upwind of the canyon,” one cousin said. “The fire was coming toward us with the wind and I turned around and met back up with (my cousin). We ran and hiked and ran down the creek to the Black River and walked from there to the 25 road.”

The two didn’t get back to their car until the next day, May 30. They spent the night on the Black River starting another “small fire to stay warm,” they told the Forest Service.

Winds frustrate firefighters

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.

Saving Alpine

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.

Final Statistics:

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).

3,594 firefighters

Equipment - 15 helicopters, five air tankers, 196 engines, 72 water tenders, 21 dozers.

8 hours to drive around the perimeter.

Spark by Pia Wyer

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.