June 30, 2017
Introduction by Les Conklin
Those of us who were in north Scottsdale during early July in 1995 will never forget the Rio Fire. Ten years after the fire, Peak contributor Bob Mason submitted one of the best articles that I’ve every read about the fire. As we enter the heart of fire season, this seems like a good time to re-publish Bob’s article and include updated photographs. We are also publishing as a separate article photographs from the 1995 Peak article about the fire. You will find a link at the bottom of this piece.
The park is still recovering. In 2013, 22 years after the fire, I contacted the park for an update on the park’s recovery. According park supervisor Rand Hubbell, the ground cover and brush at the park have made a full recovery and this spring’s wildflower bloom was spectacular. Most of the larger species, including palo verde, mesquite, and jojoba have made a strong recovery throughout the park. The height of the new vegetation that is growing in burned areas, where vegetation was devastated, is only about four feet less than in areas that were not damaged by the fire. Wildlife populations are almost fully recovered. Unfortunately, experts say that it will take 80 to 100 years for the saguaro populations to recover in the burned portions of the park. Editor
Note. Thanks to Bob Mason for contributing this important article. I’ve read it several times over the years; it’s always interesting and an important reminder of the importance of fire safety, fire fighters, and our neighbors. Also, see the photographs from the September issue of A Peek at the Peak at the bottom of this article. Editor.
The Rio Fire: Ten Years Later
From A Peek at the Peak, July 2005 Issue
By Bob Mason
On the late afternoon of July 7th, 1995, a “dry” thunderstorm hit the Pinnacle Peak area. One of the lightning strikes hit the desert close to the 128th street alignment and about a mile north of Rio Verde Drive. The strike quickly ignited the dry grass. Captain John Heinz of the Rio Verde Fire District remembers the date vividly. Heinz was then an employee of Rural Metro at the Rio Verde Fire Station and helped with some of the details for this story.
Much like our weather of last winter, above-normal rains caused a heavy growth of red brome grass and foxtail in our desert. As usual, the rains stopped by late March. No cattle had grazed this area for several years, and the tall, dry grass covered the desert surface like a blanket of kindling.
A brisk north wind spread the fire rapidly. Rural Metro units from Pinnacle Peak and Rio Verde were the first ones on the scene. The blaze was already near Rio Verde Drive, and flames were involving the numerous yucca plants and palo verde trees. Before a significant number of fire trucks could arrive, winds had caused the blaze to jump Rio Verde Drive and spread rapidly. Within an hour, one air tanker was on site dumping fire-retardant.
Firefighters had to concentrate their attention to protecting homes south of Rio Verde Drive and east of 128th Street. The blaze was also moving southwest toward the eastern side of Troon Village. A general call for help was issued for metropolitan fire units. During the night, heroic efforts saved all the existing homes in this area.
The Governor of Arizona visited the scene the first night and declared it to be a “campaign fire,” which means that it was significant enough to call for both state and federal assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) swung into action, and resources poured in from multiple sources.
Rio Verde Drive was blocked to all public traffic and was used as a staging area for the many vehicles that were converging on the scene before daylight of the second day. Steady winds fanned the blaze downhill on the south side of the road. Some observers felt that the fire was intense enough to create its own weather system and winds. Smoke was visible for many miles. Flames were estimated as high as 40 feet at times as ironwood and palo verde trees seemed to explode as they were reached by the leading edge of the blaze.
The road from the Verde communities to Fountain Hills was also blocked and used as a staging area. Some families along Rio Verde Drive were asked to leave their homes. They were housed and fed by the Rio Verde Country Club at no cost to them. The village of Rio Verde offered its Community Center as a housing area for firefighters; as many as 70 at one time rested, showered, ate, and slept there for five nights. A similar command center was established at Cactus Shadows High School near Carefree. Helicopters filled their 1000-gallon buckets at the nearby lakes on the golf courses at Rio Verde and Tonto Verde.
At the end of the second day, the eastern edge of the fire was approaching Ashler Hills at the 172nd Street alignment. Residents along the west side of Rio Verde anxiously watched, as it appeared they would have to evacuate. Many loaded their most-valued possessions in automobiles ready to be led out by firefighters in a worst-case scenario. About dusk, the wind changed abruptly to the northwest, directing the fast-moving leading edge of the fire to the south and directly toward the structures supporting McDowell Mountain Park. Attention was directed to protecting these buildings and constructing a firebreak along McDowell Mountain Drive and the road leading into McDowell Mountain Park.
By the end of the second day, an impressive array of personnel and equipment was dedicated to controlling the blaze. It included the following:
• 16 fire engines
• 26 brush fire trucks
• 4 water tankers
• 6 heavy slurry tankers
• 6 helicopters
• 3 single-engine spotter airplanes
• 500-plus firefighters
• 39 different fire departments and government agencies (some as far away as Douglas, AZ, Idaho, Nevada,
Winds moderated on the third day, and by evening, the fire was declared 50% contained. Fire lines centered on the major entry road in the park and McDowell Mountain Parkway held and provided the knockout punch. Coincidentally, when the fire ignited, a biothermal aircraft from NASA with a photo mapping contract from Scottsdale was already flying over the area. Through a cooperative effort, firefighters were able to use the thermal sensitive photos to locate and eliminate hot spots. Firefighters stayed on the job for another seven days to achieve containment.
Twenty-three thousand acres were burned—more than 14,000 inside McDowell Mountain Park. The Rio Fire was the largest desert wildfire ever experienced in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. Immediately following the fire, many agencies responded to assess the damage to the desert, most specifically in McDowell Mountain Park. The park was closed to the public until November of 1995, but in August an open house was held by park officials to show the damage, and an interpretive tour of a selected area was available. The McDowell Park Association provided volunteer support for the park staff.
Saguaros were identified that were too badly burned to survive but with arms that were still alive. Where possible, these were detached and planted in a nursery. When they had developed a rudimentary root system of their own, they were to be transplanted into barren areas to speed the revegetation process.
A Rio Fire Restoration Fund was established, and in the first six months more than $17,000 was donated, with the largest donation coming from members of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Homeowners Association, whose homes were saved by the quick action of firefighters on the first night of the fire. British Airways donated $3,500 to the fund. More than 3,000 people were involved in vegetative restoration projects of various kinds. Nurseries donated plants, and volunteers helped with planting and hand watering.
Unfortunately, the years immediately following the Rio Fire were abnormally dry. Only a few of the salvaged saguaro arms survived to be transplanted. Rabbits and other rodents ate most of the smaller plantings. As one disappointed ranger said, “All we did was create little tossed salads for the critters.”
2005 Park Status
The fire’s effect on wildlife is more difficult to measure. Desert tortoises were likely the most damaged species since they would not have had time to escape or dig deeply enough to survive. Some small rodents and snakes were no doubt trapped and killed beneath the ground. Larger species were believed to be able to evade the flames, although the barren landscape that immediately followed surely limited their food supply.
However, animals did return in surprising numbers. Deer, javelina, coyotes, and rabbits were present in almost normal numbers within three years. After 10 years, it is believed that most wildlife in the park is back to its pre-fire population.
Limited funds have precluded any scientific studies of the desert’s renewal in the 10 years since the Rio Fire. However, those closest to the scene have made knowledgeable assessments. Paul “Crash” Marusich, McDowell Park Ranger, says that new growth was slow in returning for the first few years after the fire due to the lack of rainfall. Now he sees seedlings of nearly all species. Palo verde, jojoba, yucca, and ocotillo are the most frequently noticed. New barrel cactus and a few small saguaros and ironwood trees can be seen. Crash notes that the burned areas that abut unburned desert are showing the most rapid recovery.
The fire’s very rapid movement in the first two days was a frightening event that triggered the massive response. Ironically, the quick spread of the fire has aided the desert’s vegetative recovery in some areas. Because of the speed of the hottest part of the fire, the leading edge, the roots of some plants such as jojoba and ocotillo survived and sent up new growth within a short time. This same swift fire movement also created a few untouched “islands” of vegetation that have helped provide bird sanctuary and expanded the natural vegetative perimeter.
A Peek at the Peak: 1995 Photographs of Rio Fire
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