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Fire on the Mountain

June is a dry and dangerous time in the forests of Arizona, and one June day in 1944 was especially dangerous.

We lived in a log cabin on the Mogollon Rim, 85 miles southeast of Flagstaff. We were there because my dad was a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, paid $101 a month to be there around the clock, seven days a week.

Dad’s job involved a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, which the Forest Service called “pre-suppression” of forest fires. That bit of federal doubletalk became part of family legend.

A lot of men were away fighting World War II, so Mom fought fire when there was one, getting paid by the hour. Since there were no babysitters available–our nearest neighbor was nine miles away–my brother and I started going along to forest fires when I was six and Dean was three.

Except for the fires, it was boring being in the woods all summer with only each other for company. Sometimes we wouldn’t see a visitor or a passerby for a week or two.

On this June day, I had an idea about how to liven things up. There was a strong wind howling around the cabin, unusual for June. Memory tells me it was blowing at least 35 miles an hour, gusting toward 45. Dad was tense, knowing that if a fire got started, the wind would whip it along.

I went to a bedroom window, looked out and yelled, “Fire!”

That did stir up some excitement. Mom and Dad were frantic until they determined that I was lying. Frantic changed to furious.

Dad whipped me with his belt. Experts have since suggested that that was child abuse, and that’s what twisted my psyche. But after I saw the look of terror in Dad’s eyes, I never could blame him for whaling on me.

The Rodeo-Chediski fire the past few weeks stirred up a lot of feelings. During a merciless drought, two fools started two fires that roared up the south-facing Mogollon rim, then came together, forming the worst holocaust in Arizona history.

I feel horror that 469,000 acres of my favorite country burned to the ground. Sadness for thousands of people who lost their homes and their livelihoods. Nostalgia for a time that will never be again, because Arizona has changed so much.

The cabin where we used to live is about 25 miles west of the western end of the Rodeo-Chediski fire. It was a different kind of forest then, without so much of the fuel that has since built up on the ground, and few of the “doghair” thickets of young pine trees.

The country was populated by a few ranchers, cowboys, Forest Service employees, fishermen. There were a couple of tiny sawmills, but the country hadn’t been logged big-time as it would be later. The forests that sweep across central Arizona were still billed as the largest “virgin” stand of ponderosa pine in the world. I don’t remember any summer home developments north of the Rim.

Nearly all of our fires were caused by lightning. Back in 1872, General George C. Crook had noted in his diary the open, park-like nature of the forest north of the Rim, and the thunderstorms that pounded the forest. The place where we lived, General Springs, was named for Crook.

Dad’s mission was to hit the fires fast, while they were small, and keep them that way. He excelled at that, with only basic hand tools and poor communications. I was proud of what he did.

Do a preacher’s kids always get in trouble? Do a firefighter’s kids become firebugs? Not really, but you might wonder.

A year or so before I yelled “Fire!,” I had actually set the woodpile on fire while playing with matches. For that crime, I was exiled to the “sitting rock,” a slab of sandstone where Dad assigned us for what would today be called “time-outs.”

Later, when we were wintering in Camp Verde, I showed Dean how we could cut windows and doors into cardboard boxes and make a little town. Then we burned down the town, and that’s how we set that woodpile on fire. Mom doused it with a garden hose. Camp Verde had no fire department.

I worked my way through college by fighting forest fires, and I swear I never set one, accidentally or on purpose. I went to college to become a newspaper reporter, so I wouldn’t have to fight fire anymore.

While the Rodeo-Chediski fire raged, I was glad I was too old to be a firefighter, or a reporter. Few people have seen a fire that behaved like that monster, and my TV screen was as close as I wanted to get.

As the dragon roared through the forest, political charges started flying about faulty forestry policies, and about unwise lawsuits by environmentalists that might have contributed to the worst fire in Arizona history.

Man and boy, firefighter and journalist, I’ve been listening to these arguments all my life. I won’t say the various factions taught me how to lie, but I have often observed them creeping through the pine trees, hiding their agendas.

The Forest Service is not a popular agency. Its policies always put it in conflict with people who wanted to use up resources, and more recently with environmentalists who would lock up resources. If the Forest Service had not been given custody of vast reaches of the West back in the 1890s, there would not have been much left to burn in 2002. It would have been logged off, grazed bare, fished out.

When I was fighting fires, they had to keep us busy–“pre-suppression,” so to speak. So we pruned young pine trees.

Okay, it sounded silly then, too, but it paid $1.40 an hour. The notion was that many years down the road, pruning would produce clear pine lumber, free of knots. We’ll never know, because federal courts have all but eliminated logging in Arizona.

That’s fine with me. It takes a long time to grow a tree in Arizona.

Our time might have been better spent thinning doghair thickets. The thickets are there because people fought the fires that once controlled them, and because overgrazing by cattle eliminated grasses that might have kept the young trees from getting a start.

Later, I reported on all kinds of environmental scripture. There were “tin roof” boys who wanted to clear vegetation so more water would flow down to Phoenix, and there were those who wanted to sanctify every tree, bush and rock–people who literally couldn’t see the forest for the tree.

Our forests are no longer virgin. We’ve molested them for 150 years. That should change our approach to saving them.

Sometimes federal agencies clean the forest floor by “controlled burns.” Before humans came along, fire apparently did a good job of cleaning. Fuel was not allowed to build up, so the fires seldom got hot enough to kill mature trees. It’s different now.

I spent one Christmas vacation in the 1950s fighting a calculated burn that wouldn’t stay controlled. And just two years ago, it was a controlled burn that destroyed part of Los Alamos, NM.

In the 60 or so years since I set fire to the woodpile, saplings have taken root in the clearing at General Springs, and grown to substantial size. Some of the “doghair” has been cleaned out of the forest, but billions of young pines still compete for sunlight in crowded thickets.

Paved highways and unpaved logging roads have opened up the region north of the Rim. Thousands of people have moved into homes and second homes among the pines. Everyone would like to live in a pretty country.

Nearly half a million acres is not so pretty now. None of us will live long enough to see it recover, and that just breaks my heart.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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