Last week, many of us who grew up in the “Copper Belt” area of southeast Arizona were on edge.
Robert Licano Photography photo of Telegraph fire from Globe AZ
Two wildfires broke out in rugged terrain and spread quickly.
The Mescal and Telegraph fires grew so large that each got its own Facebook page.
While by no means the largest fires in Arizona history, the combined blazes consumed an area that may grow to 40 percent of the size of New Castle County. The Grand Canyon State’s biggest fire covered an area more than half the size of Delaware.
There was a real possibility that the two most recent fires could merge and surround the mountainous copper mining and ranching area with a population of around 20,000. That indeed happened, although the Mescal fire is largely inactive.
The Telegraph fire spread quickly and posed a serious threat to my hometown of Miami, something that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
Fire is always a threat, but the focus had often been on the pine forest and the flammable chaparral in the Pinal range that overlooks the area.
Residents witnessed an apocalyptic scene of a night sky lit up with flames from the nearby hills. Some were given the “go” order to evacuate or face the prospect that no help would arrive should the fire roar into town.
Help arrived in the form of more than 1,000 firefighters as well as DC-10 aircraft carrying foam. Smaller planes scooped up water from a lake 30 miles away.
Joining in was the workhorse Chinook helicopter that may have been converted to civilian use at the Summit Aviation center near Middletown.
Bulldozers cut fire lines, and backfires were ignited to starve the blaze of oxygen and vegetation. A mining company stationed its massive water tanker trucks in town should the unthinkable happen.
One strategy was to keep the fire moving toward an area where a previous controlled burn would deprive it of fuel.
By Sunday, both fires were more than 70 percent contained. As a result, evacuation orders ended, although some residents were advised to keep bags packed and stay in the “ready” mode.
An outpouring of affection for the heroic efforts of firefighters was in evidence as a proud community that a year ago battled a Covid-19 outbreak came together.
Another go order
As temperatures move above 100 this week, the threat of new fires increased. On Monday, it pushed out from the Pinals and forced a “go” evacuation order in some areas.
Sadly, the Telegraph fire was human-caused, a common occurrence in Arizona, a state with seven million people, some of whom put pressure on a fragile environment made more vulnerable by a long-running drought.
Firefighters encountered a new foe in the form of drones that threaten aerial firefighting efforts. There was also one report of a sightseer’s vehicle becoming stuck when traveling into a fire area. Also worrisome were social media reports that spread rumors like (pardon the expression) wildfire.
The cost of fires, even those that don’t set records, is high.
The Telegraph fire reportedly roared through the white stone outcroppings and ponderosa pines in the scenic but little-known Cherry Flats-Rocky Gorge area outside Miami.
Many of us hiked in this area in late winter or early spring, back in the days before video games, helicopter parents, and 100 TV channels.
It leaves a hole in one’s heart. Still, things could have been unimaginably worse.
We only have to look at what happened at another mining town, Bagdad, AZ. Last month, a small but fast-moving 150-acre blaze that did not make the national news quickly destroyed 14 homes. – Doug Rainey