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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: A Wave Of Fire

Thousands of firefighters are putting their lives on the line this summer in Arizona and across the West as wildfires rage on drought-sticken land. In this month’s Canyon Commentary, writer Scott Thybony brings us a story to honor these firefighters. It’s about the 1996 Hochderffer Hills Fire near Flagstaff, and it gives us a snapshot of the risks fire crews take to save our homes and forests. 

A line of firefighters worked to clear a break north of the San Francisco Peaks as thick smoke billowed skyward.  Wearing yellow Nomex shirts the hand crew moved along the edge of the woods, now drier than a lumber yard.  Yesterday a lightning storm had ignited a wildfire in the Hochderffer Hills, and 2,000 firefighters would mobilize before it was over.  I continued driving past the crew to Indian Flat.

John Farella was outside, fire-proofing the old homestead where my family and I had once lived.  After giving him a hand, I climbed a nearby ridge to check on the progress of the fire.  In the distance a ponderosa burst into flame, sending up a black plume.  Then another, and another.  That afternoon the rapidly moving fire had trapped a crew of firefighters, forcing them to go into the black, a somewhat safer zone where the fire had already burned.  They deployed fire shelters, which saved their lives, but four crew members suffered burns, one critically. 

On the third day the winds shifted, forcing John to evacuate.  As embers dropped from a dark sky he drove away in his pickup, believing the place was lost. “You couldn't help but be afraid the way it was blowing,” he said.  “But the fire crew looked confident.  You couldn’t help being impressed by them.”

A brush truck sheltered behind the stone house, and a fire engine stood nearby.  They had foamed the two structures and now prepared to defend them.  A pair of forest service firefighters took a position on the metal roof and waited.  Flames suddenly swept over the ridge and raced toward them.  The fire burned with such intensity entire trees were being incinerated to nothing but ash.  The crew on the ground crouched low, while those on the roof watched it approach.  “We can do this,” one of them told the other, “we can do this.” 

When the leading edge reached a stand of ponderosa it exploded into a terrifying wall of flame a hundred feet high.  The fire crested in a huge wave, leaping over both houses and continuing across the open flat beyond.  Stunned by what had happened, the firefighters found themselves on an island of unburned ground surrounded by a charred expanse.  Remarkably, all escaped unharmed.

Knowing none of this, John and I decided to return that night to see if anything remained intact.  Flakes of ash appeared in the headlights, and soon we could see burning trees flickering high on a hillside beyond the flat.  It meant the fire had swept past the houses and most likely destroyed them.  Leaving the truck, we continued on foot past glowing patches of burned-over ground.  The dirt road we followed curved between trees and open field, between what had burned and what still burned.  Somewhere across a mile of blackened grassland lay the homestead, or what remained of it.  The air was dead still without a sound, except the call of a solitary bird.  

Flames licked up through the rails of a cattleguard as we strained to see ahead, expecting to find a mound of stone rubble and smoldering timbers.  Soon I made out the angle of a stone wall.  It appeared to be a charred shell, but moving closer we found the house still standing.  Scorched trees showed where the fire had swept through, burning everything in its path except the homestead.  Prepared for the worse, it took us a moment to realize the place had survived.  “I didn’t expect this,” John said.  “Did you?”

Stumps flared nearby, casting a guttering light on a landscape of ash and black snags.  Before leaving we tossed buckets of water on a pinyon pine, burning from within and threatening to spread to other trees.  We now headed back along the road, wondering about the mystery of fire and the bravery of those who fight it.  Ahead of us the ridge glowed with points of incandescence like the scattering of stars far overhead.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.