The 2011 Wallow fire, at 538,049 acres, was the largest wildland fire in Arizona’s recorded history. Since the state was celebrating its centennial the next year, that chronicle is not terribly long, but it is long enough. The fire was a monster. It roared past the dimensions of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire which was actually two fires, or in practice three since the large gap that separated the originating fires could not be attacked and so effectively became a third.
Inevitably reports tended toward gross figures and the big picture. Among them, released while BAER projects were still underway, was a study of fuel treatments around the two communities primarily threatened by the fire, Greer and Alpine. Alpine found itself at the muzzle of the gun barrel that was the Wallow’s run when the fire burst out of the Bear Wallow Wilderness and blew over the White Mountains. The flames at Greer came later. There was little opportunity to ready Alpine for the onslaught. Greer had several days to prepare. With Alpine the hamlet would survive, or not, because of treatments made long before 3 June 2011.
As a general observation, this is almost certainly accurate. Yet that sweeping perspective disguises much of the ground truth of what actually burned and why. As it happens, we have had a cabin at Alpine for nearly 20 years. The south lot line borders the Apache National Forest; the north, County Road 2070, which became the fireline on which the tip of the flaming spear that was the Wallow’s primary run struck. The lot burned.
The cabin did not. We had spent many years thinking about how to make the place firesafe but biofriendly. We had thinned extensively – hundreds of conifer poles went from the 1.5 acres. We had raked out the compacted needle casts around the bases of the big yellow pines. We had culled out oak copses. We had planted and coaxed aspen. The cabin had a rock walkway from 3-5 feet wide around it. We stashed our firewood along the south lot line, well away from the house. In early May I had cleaned out the gutters, raked up a 50-foot cordon of needles and windfall around the house, and moved the winter firewood to its summer setting. I had a small cache of firefighting tools and backpack pump on site and ready. We were, I reckoned, prepared. If a fire threatened, I would be there, on the rock walkway, to assist.
Of course it didn’t happen that way. I had just returned from a two-week research trip to California and the next day Alpine was under orders to evacuate. The Alpine fire department would have to patrol CR 2070. All the houses along that fireline, and within the fire, survived. They then suffered through debris flooding. The Forest Service report on “How Fuel Treatments Saved Homes from the 2011 Wallow Fire” was released on 16 August 2011. Graphic photos showed a post-fire scene in which high severity burns went from white sticks to scorched crowns to green woods along the gradient of treatment.
§ It looks different on the ground. Alpine sits in a valley, as though a giant hand had pressed down onto the land and left it with steep rims and a flat bottom. The Wallow fire was a wind-driven conflagration that scoured out the woods where the wind blew freely and scorched or skipped places shielded from it. The severity of burning maps the ferocity of the wind, not the density of fuels. Around the valley that contains Alpine crown fire left a pattern like a bathtub ring. Above, where the wind was unobstructed, the forest burned savagely. Below, it burned much more weakly, with little severity. Undoubtedly the thinning projects under the White Mountain Stewardship Program helped prevent ember showers from scaling into torching crowns, but the primary impact may have been to encourage firefighters to make a stand.
At Alpine Village East the line of houses along CR 2070 offered a gradient of treatments. At one extreme was a house occupied by a retired couple who lived in terror of the woods. A few years previously a large ponderosa on the national forest had fallen, and then smashed into another pine which veered onto their roof while they were inside. The center beam broke the fall, but they then remade the lot into a bunker by replacing anything natural within a tree’s height with gravel, stone, or artificial plantings. At the other extreme was a house that could serve as a poster child for how not to make a structure firesafe. The original owners had a vision of a Hansel-and-Gretel forest with gingerbread wooden structures (and roof), and systematically planted all the spacings between the dense pine with blue spruce, stacked firewood under the porch, and generally tried to transfigure a sunny southwestern landscape into something from the Black Forest. Our place lay (literally) between those extremes.
So which survived best? The Hansel-and-Gretel cabin came through without a scorch mark and then watched unscathed as floods from the mountains sent sheets of debris below them. The bunker house suffered nothing from the fire but took a shot from flooding, and after the first flush erected a barricade of sandbags and haybales. Most of the damages went to our place. In truth, the fire we got was exactly the fire I had designed our place to survive. The big fires are always in the spring with strong southwesterly winds being them. The record showed them arriving on a roughly 50-year cycle; the last had burned over Mt Escudilla in 1950. We were due.
That’s the big story. The small story is how fire might actually burn on a 1.5-acre patch. I had not anticipated the effect of squirrels, whose middens accumulating at the base of oaks would burn stubbornly and hence inspire crews to fell the green trees. The biggest oaks, some with catfaces that testified to their past history as survivors, went. Nor had I understood the likely breadth of scorch. Very little surface fuel burned – outside the middens, actual flame hardly penetrated beyond the depth of a pine needle. Yet the blast of heat killed anything under about 10 feet in height; oaks, juniper, aspen, pine.
The fuel story on Lot 143 is not of unnatural buildups that powered an unnatural burn, but of a fire that left far more fuel in its wake than it consumed. The only exception was our woodpile, which vanished into four inches of ash. If anything, our attentiveness to opening up the landscape had created favorable conditions for stray spots to catch and for hot winds to blusher through and kill.
What determined the survival of the bunker house was its complete incombustibility, achieved by destroying anything that approximated the original landscape. What determined the survival of the Black Forest house was that its new owner, a retired deputy sheriff who “badged” his way through the evacuation barriers, stayed and swatted out spots while crews went elsewhere when the fire crested over the rim. After three days crews reappeared and left him some rations and hose for use with the subdivision’s hydrant system before leaving again. He probably saved a score of houses. What spared our place was our long years of preparation and the luck of falling embers. Nothing within the areas raked around the house showed so much as a soot scar. The rest burned patchily, finding caches of combustibles in our wood pile and squirrel middens. The serious fuel accumulation came after the fire as a result of crown scorch from the fire itself.
The story of fuel, fire, and structure survivability is whether or not you were in the zone of free-air winds and whether someone was on hand, trained or not, to knock out spots. A micro-analysis of fuel treatment on the Wallow fire looks very different from the macro-analysis.
§ But is this no less true of narratives? A big theme, a grand narrative, can be much easier to write than a meticulously documented small one. It’s simple to speak of social trends, agency character, reforms in policy, and informing ideas – they ride in the free-air realms of history. What actually happens, however, will depend on local circumstances, the past acts of particular actors, and agents perhaps operating as individuals. On the Wallow it’s easy to speak of thousands of firefighters, a hundred engines and tractors, and a fleet of aircraft. But for most residents the outcome was not decided by engine task forces and a DC-10 VLAT. It depended on where they lived relative to the free winds and whether or not a retired deputy, eager to protect his hunting trophies, decided to stay behind in defiance of a mandatory evacuation.
It has been recognized since forever that how an individual soldier sees a battle and how it appears to a general or to historians a generation later has little overlap. It’s a simpler story – a lot easier to draw lessons learned – from a big story than the small. It’s an effect of scale; those confusing personal perspectives shrink into data points on a scatter diagram. But that’s not how events appear to those who live through them, or how a conscientious history should narrate them. The anomalies matter as much as the algorithms. A house may survive because its occupants feared a falling tree or because someone didn’t want to lose a prized elk rack.
Alpine, Arizona 24 June 2012