Sedona residents awoke this morning to their first taste of the Slide Fire smoke that has been inundating Flagstaff since the fire broke out at 4 p.m. Tuesday. The cloud blanketed the town — a good sign, actually, indicative of a more favorable direction of reduced winds that aided the stalwart crews fighting a fire that’s now grown to almost 5,000 acres.
This is the good news. And there’s more. It’s as hopeful as can be, given the circumstances.
Today signals the beginning of a significant shift in the weather. Gone are the strongest advisory-level winds of early this week that fueled the fire’s rapid northward march, threatening the southern Flagstaff communities of Forest Highlands, Kachina Village and Mountainaire. Because winds will be breezy again this afternoon, these communities remain in the pre-evacuation state of readiness they’ve been in for almost 24 hours.
On Friday, a “seasonably strong low moving through Arizona” will mean reduced winds and an even more favorable change in direction, and by afternoon, there’s a 40 percent chance of rain showers that could be a boon to firefighting efforts.
More good news: The fire has now been officially designated a Type 1 incident (top priority), meaning fire personnel available anywhere in the country can be brought in.
After an early morning flyover of the burned area in pilot extraordinaire, aerial photographer and frequent Arizona Highways contributor Ted Grussing’s Lambada motor glider, we spent an hour or so talking to the helicopter base commander and a number of the pilots about the water and fire-retardant drops that are making the first real progress in containment. There were personnel from Tucson, California, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Many have come directly from the devastating fires in San Diego.
Ground crews are also hard at work on the northern perimeter along Forest Road 535, backfiring to create firebreaks and contain the fire’s northward spread.
Yavapai and Coconino counties’ search-and-rescue teams, including quite a few volunteer members from Sedona, have been scouring the backcountry over the last two days for stray hikers and campers, ensuring their safe evacuation, as well as manning the many trailhead, forest-road and highway closure points.
All these guys are incredibly hardworking and motivated. Their reputations as heroes are richly deserved.
But there’s also some very bad news, likely the worst we could have expected.
Take a look at the Coconino National Forest map of the fire from yesterday, and you’ll see that the entire 3.5-mile length of the West Fork Trail was overrun by the fire as it moved northward. The first reports of the fire burning in the watershed home of our most popular and beautiful trail came yesterday afternoon (as did the first confirming incident-report maps). Ted’s amazing aerial photos from this morning show the deep chasm that is the West Fork watershed still choked with smoke.
Given the number of tinder-dry, bark-beetle-infested ponderosa pines in West Fork, it would be a miracle if parts of the trail weren’t severely burned. It’s hard to tell from the maps, but it looks like maybe the first few crossings may have survived intact. But there’s no real way to know until there are actual boots on the ground.
And it could be weeks, months or even years before those boots are public. Obviously this is only informed supposition on my part, but given that certain badly burned trails from the 2006 Brins Fire in Sedona stayed closed for more than three years, this fire of equal magnitude could bring similar closures.
What’s worse, a trail of such enchanting beauty could be horrifically marred for years to come. As many have pointed out, fires are natural, restorative and necessary. It will grow back, likely healthier, years from now. That’s for certain.
Losing this world-famous trail will have a real impact on Sedona’s business community. That’s for certain, too.
And perhaps a generation of visitors, Arizonans and Sedonans will miss its tranquil beauty, its magnificent canyon walls, the fall color change, the quiet of a freshly fallen snow in winter along its peaceful banks.
I’m deeply saddened to think I’m unlikely to ever see it again as beautiful as I’ve been privileged to photograph it for the last decade.
Bad news, indeed.
Paul Simon’s words ring truer than ever today: “Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph / Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”
—Derek von Briesen