I have not posted anything in a while and this has been due to the outbreak of what has been dubbed here in southeastern Arizona as the “Monument Fire.” On Sunday, 12 June, a wildfire erupted in the Coronado National Monument roughly 8 miles southwest of my home. Two days later, we evacuated to a relative’s house a safe distance from the growing blaze. Five days after that we were subsequently forced to evacuate again from that location. Today, thankfully, we have been able to return home but it will be a long time before life returns to some semblance of normalcy, I am sure.
As of this writing, there have been several dozen structures destroyed and almost 27,000 acres consumed by this terrible fire but thank God no one has lost their lives. There are well over 1000 emergency personnel fighting to keep the blaze mostly on the Huachuca Mountains and away from the homes in the valley below, and many airborne assets have been dedicated to the fight as well. Some of these personnel include the famed Hotshots and other assets from outside of the state. As of 19 June 2011, the Monument Fire became the number one priority fire in the nation.
While much speculation has abounded regarding its origin, including everything ranging from illegal immigrants to the negligent discard of a cigarette along the highway, none of it has proven credible or substantiated. Suffice it to say that the fire was man-made. It will likely be some time before the true cause is discerned and announced – if ever.
There are four very important contributing factors that have allowed the surrounding areas to be so vulnerable to a fire of this magnitude. First, the area has not received even the minutest amounts of precipitation in about the last six months, causing the flora to become incredibly dry – a virtual tinderbox. Second, the humidity, as it always is here in the months preceding the monsoon, is very low, adding to the dehydrated environment. The high temperatures of the American southwest only add to this dryness with each day’s passing. Three, the area received record low temperatures during the winter, such that even some of the heartiest of desert/grassland plants died, further adding fuel to the fire’s path. Finally, the winds have been unseasonably strong and persistent thus far this spring, essentially guaranteeing the rapid spread of any flames.
Obviously, it has been quite hairy at times. I am a combat veteran and in many ways my time spent in war paled in comparison to the stress, uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration I experienced this past week. On three separate days, high winds caused the fire to “jump” the five lane highway separating the Huachucas from the more densely populated valley floor, and from there the fires spread with awesome force. The worst day occurred yesterday, when ~50mph wind gusts grounded aircrews and whipped the fire into a frenzy, both factors combining to spread it north across the top of the range.
But despite the carnage, the community here has been admirably efficient and proactive at offering shelter for the evacuees, their animals large and small, and provisions for them and those fighting the wildfire. The charity and camaraderie of this community cannot be overstated. The firefighters and emergency personnel, similarly, have performed above and beyond what could have reasonably been expected of them given the challenges they are facing. The same, however, cannot be said of the jurisdictional public safety entity, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office. The bureaucracy that has been charged with coordinating public safety (as opposed to combating the blaze) has shown a remarkable lack thereof during the course of events. To their shame, virtually all timely updates and information have come from the community via Facebook rather than from official resources, which have been slow to communicate or have not done so at all. At times, different information providers at the helplines have issued conflicting directives and information during the same time periods, and sometimes even that information turned out to be flat-out erroneous.
The disparaging difference thus far between the performance of the decision makers and the “boots on the ground” in this situation has served as an analogous microcosm for the initial days in Iraq, where the warfighters generally performed marvelously in combating the enemy but the policymakers failed to quickly and properly address strategic considerations (i.e., exit/occupation strategies).
All that said, I am eternally grateful to the warfighters of this scenario – the firefighters and emergency personnel actually conducting the operations. Additionally, the communities of Sierra Vista and the surrounding area have demonstrated a level of magnanimity that few could have predicted. We were certainly very fortunate when many others have not been, and now we must work to ensure that those unfortunate ones are properly and humanely cared for as they try to piece their lives back together.
Below are several photos taken by me (unless otherwise noted) over the span of the past week: