Editor Robert Stieve on the Wallow Fire

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Images courtesy of Wallow Fire Information / US Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests

It’s hard to watch the news, but there’s no point in turning off the television. The images are everywhere: Facebook, Flickr, Twitter. Especially Twitter. Of all the mainstream social media, Twitter is the best for breaking news. Coups in Egypt. Earthquakes in Japan. Wildfires in Arizona. The information is essential, but it’s hard to look at the catastrophe that’s unfolding in the White Mountains.

As editor-in-chief of Arizona Highways, I’m often asked about my favorite place in the state. It’s an impossible question, because there are so many places, but when I’m pushed, I usually admit it’s a tossup between the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Hannagan Meadow in the White Mountains. Unfortunately, because of the cataclysm known as the Wallow Fire, there’s no longer a debate. It’s hard to imagine there will be anything left of Hannagan Meadow and the surrounding forests by the time the fire is finally put out.

As I write this blog, the blaze, which began on May 29, has already consumed 336,000 acres, and the wind gusts of more than 60 mph are making matters worse. At this point, zero percent of the fire has been contained. Zero percent. The fire is now the second largest in Arizona history, and it’s probably only a matter of time before it surpasses Rodeo-Chediski — two fires, both caused by human negligence, that merged as one.

It seems like just yesterday when that inferno was raging, but it’s been almost 10 years. And time isn’t healing the wound. Not for me, anyway. I still get heavy-hearted when I drive across the Mogollon Rim and see the apocalyptic devastation. It’s upsetting, and so is the Wallow Fire. Upsetting, depressing, sorrowful … there aren’t any words strong enough to describe what I’m feeling. I never thought I’d live to see anything as bad as Rodeo-Chediski, much less something worse. But that’s how the Wallow Fire is playing out, and like Rodeo-Chediski, we’re all in a state of shock.

It’s the same shock we feel during any other disaster. Certainly, you can’t compare Engelmann spruce and Douglas firs to the victims of a tsunami or an earthquake, but there is a similar feeling of helplessness and hopelessness when you see the dramatic photos, and when you think about what’s been lost and how that will decimate the local economies. And just when you think you couldn’t feel any worse, you think about how the Wallow Fire shouldn’t be burning at all. Although lightning fires do occur, this one was started by someone who forgot to pack his thinking cap when he headed into the great outdoors.

The details of how the fire got started are still being investigated, but according to officials of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, it was caused by a human being. Whether it was ignited by a cigarette butt, fireworks, an unattended campfire … we don’t know. Either way, somebody made a mistake. A big mistake. I was fortunate enough to be raised by an avid outdoorsman who taught me how to be careful in the forest and how to properly extinguish a campfire. But even without that training, you’d think common sense would prevail when it comes to fire. It doesn’t. It certainly didn’t for the person or persons responsible for the Wallow Fire. Or the person or persons responsible for the Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains, the Murphy Fire in the Atascosa Mountains, and all the others.

Ironically, unlike a raging forest fire, it’s pretty simple to put out a campfire. However, before you even think about firing up a portable stove or building a campfire, check with the area’s governing agency beforehand. Fire restrictions may apply during times of high fire danger. Times like now. DO NOT IGNORE THE WARNINGS.

When there aren’t any fire restrictions in place, and you’re at a campsite where fires are allowed, use only established fire pits, and put out your fire at least 60 minutes before you start to break camp. Let the fire die down, then pour water over the wood and ashes and cover them with soil. Mix the soil, water and ashes until the fire and any embers are completely out. Then, wait around for at least another hour to make sure it’s safe to leave. Again, use common sense and always adhere to the Leave No Trace Ethics.

If there’s a bright side to the Wallow Fire, it’s that no one has been seriously injured so far. Some of that is luck, but most of it is a credit to the incredible men and women who risk their lives to save our forests and our cabins and our favorite places. Last summer, almost to the day, I was stranded at Hannagan Meadow Lodge because of the Paradise Fire, which was burning in the adjacent Blue Range Primitive Area. The firefighters used the lodge as a staging area, and I had an opportunity to interact with many of them and talk about their heroic efforts. Of course, they didn’t see themselves as heroes. It was just another day on the job for them. But they are heroes, and we owe them a sincere debt of gratitude — for what they’ve accomplished so far, and for what lies ahead.

Time will tell what’s left of the woods when the Wallow Fire has finally finished burning, but this much we know: One of the most beautiful places in the world, one of my favorite places in Arizona, is being destroyed, and it’ll never be the same. Not in my lifetime, not in your lifetime, and not in the lifetime of the perpetrator who ignited this mess. I have no expectation that the authorities will ever track down the people responsible for the three large fires now burning in Arizona, but at the very least, I hope they’re sitting at home, glued to their televisions and thinking, How in the hell could I have been so stupid?

Let’s learn from their mistakes, and let’s hope history quits repeating itself. Meanwhile, let’s all pray for rain.


— Robert Stieve, editor-in-chief, Arizona Highways


Filed under Eco Issues, In YOUR Words, Make a Difference, Mother Nature

14 responses to “Editor Robert Stieve on the Wallow Fire

  1. Randy Nussbaum


    Thanks for your heartfelt sentiments. My summer cabin is right on the current fire line in Nutrioso and I have been unable to think about little else except the utter destruction of the most pristine forest in Arizona. Many Arizonians have no idea of what has been lost and what may still be lost in the future. My family is lucky enough to have another house, but to those who lives have been been forever devastated, I can only extend my prayers and whatever support my family and I can provide.

    Your friend,

    Randy Nussbaum

  2. Carol T. Smith

    Well said. My heart grieves.

  3. Heart felt, empathetic, sympathetic, caustic, cautioning, pleading . . . an elegant requiem to a beautiful land lost for all our lifetimes coupled with the fervent hope that it not happen again. Well said. Thank you.

  4. Prescott Readers

    I’m just heart sick.

    On June 8th, seven fires northeast of Flagstaff (the Hill Fire) were set by an arsonist, and thankfully, he drove by a resident of that forest subdivision who saw his face and his pickup truck, so the authorities have some details. Over 100 firefighters successfully extinguished that blaze, the 3rd or 4th near Flag in as many weeks. I fear the Wallow, Murphy, and Horseshoe fires might also be arsonist set, but that’s not based on evidence.

    We live in Prescott… I am checking the horizon a few times each day now. This fire season is horrific.

    Heart sick that we’ve lost even more of the gorgeous forest in the White Mountains, and in SE Arizona. And, the wildlife! I’ve read that herds of elk were found dead. Heart breaking. But, grateful that, so far, no loss of human life.

    The spirit of the Greer Community will rise up. Let’s all spend our dollars there to help them rebuild whatever they can.

  5. I can’t even begin to express my sadness. I love our state, and feel that we are losing a priceless treasure. My heart grieves for all who live in the area .

  6. Thanks for taking the time to write, Randy. I’m very sorry to hear about your cabin. In addition to the loss of homes and trees and wildlife, I worry about what will happen to the economies of Eastern and Southern Arizona. We at Arizona Highways can’t fix everything, but I can assure you and everyone else who has roots in the areas of the state that are being decimated by fire, we will do everything possible to encourage people to explore those communities that will be suffering most.

  7. David

    Not all of the fire has nuked the forest. I think we need to hope that much of the burn was healthy undergrowth burn. I have been trying to get info on my neighborhood in Alpine since Wednesday of last week. It looks like we are ok. The firefighters are heroes. I pray for them, the forest and all of the homeowners. –DR

  8. Jeanne

    Thank you for the beautiful essay. My uncle and his family live in the small town of Blue, right in the heart of the Wallow Fire. I have spent many happy summers in this area and my heart grieves for the loss of this beautiful country. To walk and hike in those gorgeous ponderosa pines was a favorite activity of mine, whether it was in the cool summers there or the cold winters. There was no other vacation like that, because there is a magical quality about life in a small town, where everyone knows each other by their first name and you do not hesitate to help your neighbor. The permanent residents of Blue and the surrounding small communities of Alpine, Nutrioso, Greer, Luna (New Mexico) and even Springerville are a special group of people who have survived the sometimes less than easy living conditions for generations. They will survive this fire and they will rebuild. But their lives will never be the same. I am very grateful for all the firefighters and their willingness to endanger their lives to fight this terrible wildfire. May there soon be an end to this nightmare!

  9. Pingback: The Arizona Wildfires | Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy

  10. Mary McCarthy

    It saddens my heart to read your letter. I’m a Texan , however I too love the White Mountains. My partner and I would stay at the Caldwell Cabin just 30 miles outside of Alpine every year, by the beautiful Black River. It is where we fell in love…….with the beauty and grandeur of the forest and with each other. He would later take me there each October as a birthday present . It was our special place and now it will never be the same.

  11. Mingyue

    Thank you for your sentiments. In early May I drove up US191, from Mt Graham to Alpine, taking photos. All of my ‘photo’ trips ultimately lead me to somewhere along US191 because it is so beautiful. The skies are clear and the wildlife is fantastic in my photos. My heart goes out to all who have or will lose homes & property as well as the wildlife. I may not be able to hold back tears whenever I get the chance to go back.

  12. Patricia

    This area of Arizona is very sacred and special to me and I’m very saddened that it’s been torched and burned by negligent humans who just don’t care. I’m originally from New England and felt like I was “home” whenever I ventured to the White Mountains. As an avid hiker and backpacker, this area was an oasis for me and now it is mostly gone and will never be back in my lifetime or even my children’s lifetime.

    My heart goes out to the people who live and work there whose incomes are disrupted, displaced due to evacuation or worse yet….lost their homes to this tragedy.

    As of today this fire is the largest that Arizona has ever seen and it has devastated almost 500,000 acres of the most pristine Ponderosa Pine forest in the WORLD…..IN THE WORLD!!!! I hope the person or persons who are responsible for this can sleep at night.

  13. Esther Wiltbank

    Our family has a guest ranch, Sprucedale which is about 20 miles from Hannagan. We returned to our ranch on Saturday and have seen some of the area around our ranch. Yes, some of it has been decimated but we are very happy that much of it will survive and after our rains return, much of it will be beautiful again! The fire has brought so much heart ache to many, many people, and we are some of them as we will see the damage everyday. However, we are of pioneer stock and we will do our best to carry on but our ranch and the other businesses in our area need each of you to still come and see us and be supportive of our businesses, PLEASE still come and help each of the local businesses hang on while Mother Nature works her magic to heal our beautiful mountains!

    • Kami Cass

      I’ve been to your Sprucedale ranch once to horseback ride when we camped for a week near Big Lake. Sprucedale is unbelievably beautiful. It was there that I saw bighorn sheep for the first time (and only one other time since). I’m relieved to hear that not all is lost. My husband and I already had reservations for August at Hannagan lodge and we plan to still go. I’m sure I will cry on this trip for what has been lost, but I’m also sure there will be many smiles at what is still there. God bless you and your family and best wishes to you all as you move forward with life after this terrible, preventable, tragedy.

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