MEMORIES OF THE YARNALL & PRESCOTT 07/18/2013

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Liz in my hat.

HONORING THE HEROIC HOTSHOTS AND THE OTHER WONDERFUL, CARING PEOPLE WHO RESIDE IN THAT PART OF ARIZONA

This essay started out as a light hearted tale of my delightful adventures in Northern Arizona which I was anxious to share with friends and Eva’s writing class. Then tragedy struck.

Now there are three parts.  Part I: The Fires of Hell ~ Part 2: Light reading ~ A humorous look about my adventures “up there”. ~ Part 3: There are no answers to this tragedy.

 

Part I: The Fires of Hell:  Forest fires in Arizona? I’ve seen miles and miles and miles of forests or desert grasslands burning as I drove past the many areas struck by the veritable Fires of Hell.

            I’ve been in unintended – but luckily: few – scary spots; including several times being pulled over by law enforcement – once was even given an oxygen mask – because the smoke made highways impassable.
            Twice I’ve lugged water in a volunteer fire brigade. It’s not much fun.

 As the years transitioned into the Twenty First Century, the fires got more vicious and widespread.
            Total desolation was observed by me after thousands of acres of lush forest land were turned to piles of ash. Increasingly, homes, cars, farms, farm vehicles, pasture land, businesses, schools, and government buildings have been devoured by flames.
            Indeed, I’ve met several dozen of the brave heroes who annually risk their lives to put out these fires. They are quiet, self-effacing, humble men, and include some women.

            My personal, deep-rooted thankfulness for the way they risk their lives because they chose to be of service to their communities is part of my feelings. God bless them and their families!

Late in this year’s spring and summer, air temperatures in Arizona reached record highs of a hundred twenty degrees and higher. I fondly reminisce about my explorations throughout the state where I lived for nineteen years. (New Jersey and Arizona are my two favorite states because of their natural diversity of geology and living things.) Temperatures were lower then; drought had not dried the land into dust.
            Parenthetically: after 2001, thousands of raging wildfires starting erupting in Arizona and other parts of the Southwest and Southeast. Slowly at first, wildfires began increasing in scope in locations throughout the forests and grasslands of the state. The decade of 2000 became a nightmare. Decade 2010 is beginning to look horrendously worse.

There are reasons for this: drought, climate change, population explosion, unrealistic government regulations based on pseudo science. That’s without the capital letter. Science is real and is appalled by the various levels of government’s ignorance and greed.
            Family and close friends who are residents in the state are concerned. We talk frequently about the awful heat and ongoing drought.
            Some of them seek refuge in the relatively cooler mountainous areas of North Central Arizona. The heat is close to hundred degrees there, too. However, the nights, as my close friend Grani, said, “are definitely cooler.”

Our conversations started me thinking about my nineteen year sojourn in what is the last state in the lower 48 to join the union.

So, on Memorial Day, I happily set out to write about some of my Arizona adventures which  celebrate the people I interacted with, including some of whom I still am in touch who live within the Prescott, Yarnell, Wilhoit, Peebles, and other adjoining places of the mountainous areas of north central Arizona.
            “Memorial Day”? How tragically “coincidental”!

Around July 1st, a wildfire erupted in those north central mountains – already a drought-struck area. Hours later, two thousand acres were aflame and out of control because of high winds and piled forest debris.

Within several more hours, over eight thousand acres were destroyed in the Towering Flames of Hell: Swiftly moving, raging flames devoured some 200 homes and businesses in the towns of Glen Isla and Yarnell, 30 miles south of Prescott and about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.

            The increasing nightmare devoured the land and reduced it to smoldering ashes from this uncontrolled wildfire as even more homes and businesses were destroyed in the ensuing hour.
            A call from the US Forest Service went out to their nationally professional personnel available. Included in this call was the need for specially trained firefighters – elite teams called HotShots, who risk their lives to put out raging flames.

            Coincidently a team of Hotshots – and their families – reside in Prescott. Many of their families have lived there for generations. Known as the Granite Mountain HotShots, they had just returned from fighting a fire in another state, and were recuperating from their stint.

When the wildfire burst out of control, they immediately joined other firefighters to control the growing nightmare devouring settled and land. The area was reduced to smoldering ashes. And the fire spread to the four compass points. 

They died several hours after arrival on this day of tragedy. The men, who wanted only to serve others – died within minutes as the fire roared from two thousand to over eight thousand acres. There were twenty HotShots. Nineteen died. One survived.
            The shock waves which reverberated throughout Arizona and the rest of the world were laced with pain. Loving fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, cousins, friends – were overwhelmed by the flames.

May the Lord bless and keep you and your families and bring healing to them.

 

.With few exceptions, my original purpose was to speak about some of my personal adventures in the mountains or North Central Arizona. In particular, tell of a delightful personal encounter with one caring individual who typifies the region’s residents.

            And then I hit a totally unexpected brick wall.

As I researched the background information, I came to a shattering personal conclusion: The HotShots gave their lives because of federal and state governments’ simplistic, non-scientific rules involving problems solving serious situations.

What was I to do? One solution seemed to totally ignore the governmental guilt; however, Science and History raised their heads and nudged my conscience.

After a week of mulling the situation, my research showed this is not by any stretch of the imagination a national issue. The problem is world-wide! So, at the end of this adventure, I will present the facts. {See Part 3: There are no answers to this tragedy.}

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Light reading ~ A humorous look about my adventures “up there”.

            After the tragedy, Many, many people asked me if I “have been in the Yarnell and Prescott areas”.
            Yes I have. It is one of my most favorite spots on Earth. I would visit “up there” about twenty times a year, though winter visits were sometimes well nigh impossible because of the snow and snow and ice which begin falling at the four thousand feet altitude mark The demarcation boundary is simple: when the hug Saguaro Cacti peter out, the snow begins its onslaught.

            Dear friends live up there. In fact, my daughter, who has lived in Phoenix for almost thirty years will be buying a house in Prescott in the next six months or so.

            To get to the area, I soon discovered a short cut which was about fifty miles shorter than the less than exciting Interstate Route. However the last ten miles on my road  are delightfully exciting: a road climb of  2000’ to 6000’ in the last twenty six miles, followed by a somewhat curvy, precipitous elevation drop of six hundred feet right into the heart of Prescott.

            If you look at Google or Mapquest, you will see how this scenic 113 miles short cut brought me from my home in Phoenix (at an elevation of 1000’) to Wickenburg (at 2300’ elevation) in an hour or less. From there, a steady climb on curvy, somewhat narrow roads took me thirty four miles further to Yarnell, an oasis of six hundred people in the wilderness. Granite Mountain, where the nineteen firefighters lost their lives, is a half mile west of Yarnell. The huge hunk of rock has an elevation of 4,780’. 
            And then, just north of Yarnell, the northward-bound adventure really begins. The final thirty five miles of road.  (twenty-six miles north as the eagle flies) It may be paved, however the two lanes consist of contorted curves, triple switchbacks, climbs, drops, broken roadways, destroyed railings. Over the edge, one glimpses dozens of smashed trucks, cars, motorcycles, and several buses which line the 89 highway slopes which sail into space and drop several hundred feet to the valley ledges and floor far below.

            I arrive at the top, go past the HotShots fire station. As I pass the Welcome to Prescott sign, I descend six hundred feet within a few miles; arriving jubilantly at Prescott’s lowest point: a 5372’ elevation.

Highway 89 will ever be a speedway. The highway was originally only two lanes wide. It still is awaiting widening in the last forty miles.  Accidents were frequent. And still are.

Sometimes the lower road has to be closed because road construction during the 90’s hadn’t accounted for an unstable layer of clay and sand layering the sides of new road cuts. The worst case closed Highway 89 for months when thousands of tons of debris slid down a two-mile-long stretch of the road. Reconstruction was not a simple task. Roadways snake over and under each other, double back on themselves, tunnel through mountains, and sometimes contain median strips up to a quarter of a mile across.

            Still, despite the improvements, minor slides of several hundred feet in length after rainstorms occur regularly during the Monsoon Season in late summer and fall.

The media keeps the warnings of hazards up to date.

Four years ago, as I was heading north, a Monsoon drencher passed through, thus causing an unstable clay based landslide which just missed my car by inches.The construction workmen screamed in horror as a I slid and careened from one side of the highway to the other – over the median to the outside drop zone, and barely avoided going over a six hundred foot drop. The rain had caused a different landslide which pushed the safety rails to slide down the mountain. I arrived in the south-bound lane, facing oncoming traffic. Then I shut down the motor and dissolved in tears onto the steering wheel.

The men were drenched, but brought me water, kisses, and hearty cheers as they pulled me from my car, 4-man carried me back to the north lane. They hand pushed the car back onto the highway, across the median strip and to the northern lanes. They had to stand guard to make sure no one smashed into my vehicle. Whew!

Snow storms were a royal pain in the neck. Theyseldom occrred below 2,500’ elevation. At times, I had to turn around and go back to Phoenix because the roads were impassable as the road climbed. Sometimes, snow plows arrived to open a path to the southbound lanes.

Did I enjoy my adventures?

YES. 

I soaked up the excitement of my explorations by car and on foot through miles and miles of uninhabited land wearing my “gambler’s hat” (not a “ten gallon cowboy hat”); carrying spare water and food, cell phone, first aid kit, my camera, binoculars, and my trusty nine-shooter thrust into my holster.
            Yes, I was an expert shot, and had earned a hidden weapons permit.

For years, I happily exploted mesas, canyons, mountains, deserts, waterfalls, swamps, bogs. Plants? 3900 species! Plant trvia? Insect eating plants. Trees such as Ponderosa Pine. Desert plants are spiny. Rule #1: Don’t fall onto a cactus.

Was there another “the catch” SR 89 leading to Prescott? Well, yes. Speed was NOT an option any more than the curves were. There were near collisions with deer, jack rabbits, raccoons, skunks, hawks, vultures, caracaras, ferrets, prairie dogs, bats, turtles, frogs, snakes; but, as I could not drive very fast on the mountain roads, the animals survived.

I have to admit I often picked up road kills to bring home. Mammals were almost impossible, so I contented myself by photographing the corpses. In fact, I photographed anything: dead or alive. Became a decent photographer, too.

By the way, it is illegal to pick up native birds – dead or alive. Fines are hefty. Working for the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum in Phoenix, often enabled me to legally bring in bodies and/ or feathers from eagles, caracaras, and other birds of prey. My license plate was on file with the INS (illegal immigrant police), the State Police, and many local police departments. But that’s another story.

One of the Phoenix Magazines wrote a humerous article about my travels throughout the state. Most of the feathers were put on display, but I kept one from each species. Alas! When I moved, that box disappeared.

            Don’t laugh. One of my identification guides was Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highway.
            Many of the police officers, state troopers, and sheriff’s posses I got to know in my travels often stopped by the museum to have rocks and minerals identified, and we became friendly over soda in the back kitchen. How did I get to know them? This essay tells one such tale.  
            A Sheriff’s posse? Um, there are a great many criminals and mysogynssts in those terrain. People actually live as hermits in remote areas of the state, but upon meeting, we got along quite well as I hiked the canyons and slopes.

The last stretch of the so called “road” between Wilhoit and Prescott is so curvy and dangerous, cars commonly sail into space when driving too fast. There are no fences or barriers. Knowing the lay of the land I would play a game coming down the thirty six miles of unfenced road. Keep in mind road shoulders do not exist on the curves; nor on the ensuing ten miles of highway to Wilhoit. I was determined not to use brakes – and at fifteen mph, was quite successful. Often, I would see tourists on the straightaway who had used the road for their first (and only time!) screech to a stop at the end of curves, pour out of their cars, and lose their last meal while sobbing uncontrollably.

The lack of road shoulder on the straightaway often kept me from exploring. I could not park on the narrow shoulder. Leaving the car parked there,would mean the State Police would have it immediately towed away. The fines were hefty. However, whenever a speeding vehicle took the metal rail fence down on the straightaway, it opened up a parking spot in the wilderness until the railing was repaired. Most of the state and local troopers – who knew me – would merrily wave at me as I trudged around.

Once, I stumble upon a sixty inch long harmless snake too close to the road, draped it around my neck, and took it to safety.

This background brings me to the most delightful Prescott adventure which started this whole essay. It honors  people living and working in the various parts of Arizona; especially those involved in paying it forward.

I worked for now defunct Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum for thirteen years, and during that time, developed a program entitled Have Rocks Will Travel. Thanks to generous grants, I was able to visit schools throughout the state; travelling to and from all six corners of Arizona and points in between – sometimes on overnight two/three day trips.

We received generous grants, and I had a fantastic time presenting programs to isolated, distant, Indian reservations, small town schools ranging from regular size populations, elementary and high school; as well as those schools with fewer than twenty students in one and two rooms, ranging from grades K through eight. Friend Grani was my assistant several times a year. But, that, as I keep saying, is another story.

Earlier that day I had presented a program to the elementary school in Peebles – north of Yarnell – then headed up to Prescott to visit some friends. Late in the afternoon, I left for Phoenix.

As I came down “the 36 mile stretch” to the straightaway on 89, I glanced at a huge thunderstorm sweeping over a several thousand foot high mesa several miles to the west of me. There were six rainbows arched over it. The sky was coal black. I was in sunshine.
            Quickly, I pulled onto the narrow shoulder lane on the right. It was just wide enough for my car. I got out, waited for cars to whiz by, and happily began taking pictures.

The state trooper, about forty years old, who had been following me down the mountain immediately pulled in front of me and asked, “You have a problem, ma’am?”

He looked familiar.

“No! Thank you for caring. Look at Griffin Top Mesa! Ten thousand seven hundred feet elevation! Six rainbows!!” I gushed as I quickly took pictures.

“Are you out of your mind, lady?” he shouted.

“Huh? What? No! I’m taking photographs.”

“This road KILLS people who stop to rubberneck, lady! You nuts? Haven’t you seen them careening down the hill? And that reminds me, your brake lights aren’t working.”

“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry, officer! Er, I don’t use the brakes, I just do fifteen mph, and haven’t had an accident yet.”

“Yeh, well, I was behind you. Didn’t make the connection. Let’s see your license and registration.”

We moved to the trunk of my car, and I brought the paperwork over to him. Then he saw the id card around my neck.

 First he checked out my paperwork on his radio. All clear. I was “clean”.  ” Oh, it’s THAT Anderson. Didn’t I see you passing water buckets over by Four Peaks last August during the fire?

“Yah, was coming down from doing a program up Flagstaff way. They were stopping cars to pass buckets. Two hours of hell. You know, I do recall you being there.”

He smiled. “It’s a time passer. But when we need to help, ya know. We help.” I work wilfires with firefighters during forest fires when I’m off. Deliver supplies and water and tools and stuff.”

I smiled broadly. We shook hands. “Yah. I do the AZMMM Outreach Program, and was on my way home from the Peebles Elementary School. There are only forty children in the entire school.”

“Oh, yeh, I saw part of the program and looked in at the lunchroom. My two kids go there. You are funny.”

“Officer, I am SO sorry about parking.”

“For God’s sake, get outta here, will you? Wait til I tell my kids I almost gave you a ticket.”

He grinned.

I thanked him profusely and waited while he stopped traffic for safety. After the cars screeched to a halt I headed for home.

The following year, I did the program again, and here he was, but not in uniform.

This time he stayed the entire time. I made him my assistant, and we had a terrific time.

At one point, I asked him how much he thought a huge head-sized chunk pumice weighed. He grinned and guessed about twenty pounds. Actually, it only weighed about a pound and floated in water. I carefully tossed it at him. He caught it, somersaulted backward while I gasped in horror, then continued somersaulting to the back of the lunchroom, clutching the rock to his chest.. After my first gasp of fear. I realized he had known the weight all along.

He got up, dusted himself off, and then overhand threw the hunk back at me. The students, teachers, and I all laughed hysterically.
            The applause was thunderous.

I love that back road to Prescott!

 

 

 

Part 3: There are no answers to this tragedy.

POSTSCRIPT: Parenthetically, after 2001, thousands of raging wildfires starting erupting in Arizona and other parts of the Southwest and Southeast every dry season. There are reasons for this: drought, climate change, population explosion, unrealistic government regulations. There are no viable solutions.

Before remote areas were heavily settled, annual periodic controlled burning was practiced for centuries from native occupation through to extensive settlement and the Industrial Revolution through the 1960’s. These fast moving and relatively non-destructive fires were annually set by lightning or deliberate torching.

            They cleared farmlands, were good for native plant and animal species, and kept forests clear so people could maneuver them.

            The periodic fires reduced forest floor debris, preserved wildlife habitat, restricted invasive vegetation and animals – often brought in from other lands, and maintained habitats so species of living things did not become endangered. I will mention the woodpeckers, sandhill and whooping cranes, hawks and eagles, mammals, reptiles, fish, butterflies; but many less spectacular species of native animals are affected.  

The Industrial Revolution brought about misuse of living things and their habitats. Animals were wiped out with over hunting. NOT sports hunting.

Eventually the endangered species and endangered habitat laws were passed.

Some scientists claim this is a simplistic approach, and, like them, many, many of us wonder why the plant and animal species survived the fast fires and thrived.

In the eighteen and until the late nineteen hundreds, dozens of species of plants and animals were endangered or became extinct by overkilling and human product greed. However, once these habits were controlled, and an national conscience developed, it wasn’t hunting that wiped them out as we shot towards the twenty first century. Especially in lush natural land areas, it was the lack of controlled burning.

There needs to be something such as a section to section plan laid out, not the hole-y blanket of scientific / political version of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

            Some caveats –  #1: I ask the reader to be seriously aware of my stance as citizen of this, the greatest nation on Earth. #2: I do NOT belong to any political splinter groups because I maintain ultimate faith in our system of government. #3: Either Science or Government, or both – have failed in their efforts to solve a serious problem by ignoring the developed laws of their respective professions.

Tax monies support government. It’s the truth, and a workable system. So governments faced with overpopulation on local and national levels support home and retail expansion in once natural areas.

Avoidance of guilt in the Yarnell Fire deaths is truly a conundrum. There may never be an answer.

This disturbing answer seems to be wildfire control is a world-wide crisis,and governments are unwilling to take intelligent steps of prevention. I fear  there seem to be no viable solutions.

Remember WWJD? I have seen it replaced with WWJRD. Is that guidance being presented to us?

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