Last winter the Chiricahuas had a drought and a cold snap that killed a lot of trees. That provided a lot of fuel. The live trees and bushes were drier than the charcoal you buy at Home Depot and guaranteed to go up in flames if touched by one of those burning embers. The firefighters said they had never seen such a perfect setting for a disasterous fire. Yet they managed to save the towns of Portal and Paradise, the wildlife research station and Cave Creek Canyon where the most important wildlife habitat is. In doing so, they encountered at least two fire tornados. When flames are very high and the wind blows, the fire begins to turn in a long column. This is the most dangerous situation a firefighter can be in. A normal tornado comes from the clouds and touches down. A fire tornado comes up from the ground. As long as the wind is blowing it stays up, but if the wind stops the fire tornado falls down and destroys everything in its path.
We were evacuated for two days when it seemed likely that our canyon would burn. Oddly enough, neither Harold nor I were upset about possibly losing our house. I had worked for years to buy it, but it hadn’t become “home” yet. Besides, we lost a house and most of our belongings when we left Zimbabwe. We learned then that the important thing was to save people, not possessions. In a far worse situation was Jackie Lewis, who had a house in Paradise. I never thought Paradise would survive because it was near the top of a mountain and surrounded by trees. Jackie had built her house around a small trailer. Year by year she and her husband constructed rooms, porches, a second story and a balcony around this tiny metal kernel. All they took when they were evacuated were the cats and the dog. Everything else was left behind. Jackie sat on the library steps in Portal with her dog, making jokes and trying to look cheerful. I was more depressed by her situation than ours. In fact everyone in town was trying to look cheerful, but it was hard to smiling when billowing clouds of dark smoke signalled that another stand of trees had gone up.
But the firefighters saved Paradise. Those of us who had houses baked cookies and cakes to be air dropped to the crews camping in the mountain. These men and women worked 16 hour days in two week shifts. When they came out after two weeks without baths, they scarcely looked human. Some townspeople offered to wash their clothes, but the fire chief said that they had to use special machines to get rid of the ashes, grime and poison ivy.
Yesterday, the fire was contained. There are still hot spots that could flare up again. The big trees burn down to the roots, leaving smoking, black craters in the ground. Some trees are charred, but still standing. These can fall down at any time and are called “widowmakers”. One fire crew had to cut their way past fallen logs with a chain saw, to see how much damage had been done in one area. By the time they were finished, so many “widowmakers” had fallen they had to cut their way out again.
The next stage will happen when the Arizona monsoon arrives in a few weeks. This is the season for flash floods, so things could get interesting again. Fortunately, when I bought this house I checked for defensible space in case of fire, and for possible sources of flash floods. We are not in danger, but a lot of other people are.
Not surprisingly, during the fire I stopped unpacking boxes and ordering furniture. I did, however, work on the sequel to House of the Scorpion. It’s coming along nicely. As for the drug mules that come through our area, the fire didn’t stop them. The firefighters were startled by men running out of burning areas with packs on their backs. Nothing stops the damn drug trade.
From now on I will try to make this a normal blog with regular entries. And thanks to all of you who keep writing to me. P.S. to Baylee: I was delighted by your sister's trick and never believed you were a clone. My sister used to tell people I was dropped off by a flying saucer and wasn't really human.