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Indian Fire goes down as worst in history

Courier file/Jo. L. Keener

The Indian Fire continues to spark a glow in the early evening of May 15, 2002,south of Prescott. The fire

ultimately torched 1,350 acres

of the forest – destroying seven

homes or structures. The wildfire,

which was the worst wildfire in Prescott's history, forced between 1,000 and 1,500 people to evacuate, mostly from the Timber Ridge, Mountain Club and Cathedral Pines subdivisions.

But several people were not so lucky. A spot fire jumping ahead of the Indian Fire claimed five homes in a V-shaped canyon on lots next to the Cathedral Pines subdivision.

But by May 18, fire crews declared the blaze "contained."

"There were seven structures lost, but there were many, many more saved," Prescott Fire Chief Darrell Willis said. "We had in the neighborhood of 2,000 structures at risk."

Forest officials credited the quick containment to hard-working ground crews and an impressive air attack from helicopters and air tankers dropping loads of water and retardant on the fire.

Tony Sciacca, long-time fire management officer for the western portion of the Prescott National Forest, headed up the initial attack. "It rates up there as one of the best initial attacks I've ever seen," Sciacca said. "But that doesn't mean we're going to be successful every time."

Two things were especially key to helping them halt the progress of the fire in the tinder-dry forest, Sciacca said: the cooler temperatures and decreased winds of nightfall, plus a break in the thick fuels, where the Forest Service had thinned out brush and trees a few years ago.

The "brush-crusher" cleared out 300 acres roughly between Jack Pine Road and the northern side of Indian Peak.

When the Indian Fire burned its way to that area, there was not enough fuel for the fire to continue downhill into the Mountain Club or Timber Ridge subdivisions, said Robert Morales, fire management officer for the forest.

In essence, the fuels reduction project allowed firefighters to make a stand. Firefighters sprayed foam on homes and feverishly cut down brush. Winds that had been gusting to about 25 miles per hour shifted a bit and helped them stop the fire's advance.

"I don't think everybody realizes how bad it could have been," Sciacca said.

He figures that without the brush crushing, along with the adjacent Jack Pine prescribed burn three years ago and a timber sale 15 years ago, the Indian Fire would have roared all the way north to Copper Basin Road, taking out all of the historic Mountain Club subdivision.

At least 600 homes surely would have burned to the ground, said Todd Rhines, assistant fire management officer for this zone of Arizona.

Defensible space around homes also helped, said Dugger Hughes, Sciacca's counterpart in the Verde Valley. Some of those that burned to the ground had brush right up to the walls, he said.

But one nearby landowner, Richard Collison, had used the same Forest Service brush-crusher contractor to clear out his seven acres. The work on his north-facing hill likely saved some neighbors' homes in the Mountain Club from the Indian Fire, and reduced the opportunity for more spot fires, forest officials said.

Prescott also is lucky to have a national fire center at its airport. When the fire started, a Hot Shot crew and air support were only minutes away.

Resources from throughout the West quickly came to help, too. A total of six air tankers swarmed over the fire, within hours of ignition. A handful of sky crane helicopters accompanied the tankers, drawing water from Watson Lake until just after dusk.

Air tanker pilot Phillip Darnell may have been one of the first to spot the blaze. He was flying to Prescott from the Hart fire near Flagstaff when he saw smoke rising about 200 feet above the pine trees, south of Prescott.

"I saw it and thought, 'There's another one,'" he recalled.

Within 30 minutes, he was dropping retardant at the edge of the fast-moving blaze, trying to prevent it from spreading.

Pilots such as Darnell have a special certification that allows them to fly about 500 feet from the ground, well below the normal minimum altitude, to drop the retardant. The goal is to prevent the fire from spreading. So pilots create a boundary with the retardant instead of dropping the load directly on the flames.

Sometimes accidents happen, however, and shortly after the fire began, a tanker had trouble with its delivery doors and dropped a load of the reddish-orange slurry on the Galpin Ford dealership – prompting a clean-up and car sale.

About three air tankers stayed in Prescott for several days to continue the air assault. Firefighters on the ground also held the fire line, with many remaining after they had contained the blaze to help "mop up" hot spots.

Some firefighters reported seeing walls of flame that rose more than 200 feet in places where the fire crossed from White Spar Road.

The fire's behavior and its aftermath confirmed for firefighters that this was the driest forest in recorded history.

"Everything on the ground was consumed to white ash," Sciacca said.

Containing the fire was an expensive process – costing approximately $1.2 million. And that figure does not account for the impact the fire had on businesses and homes.

According to the Yavapai County Recorder's Office, the five homes that the fire destroyed were worth more than $750,000 combined.

Several businesses near the fire closed, and many others offered discounted services to firefighters and evacuees.

The figures do not include the cost of the subsequent investigation into the cause of the fire. Officials determined that a person started the blaze. However, the cause remains unknown, said Jon Shumate, patrol captain of the law enforcement division of the Forest Service.

"... it's still an active case," he said. "It's on the back burner now, but we're still working on it."

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