Fox News Chief Meteorologist Rick Reichmuth, an Arizona native, invited Editor Robert Stieve to Springerville, Arizona, for live “Fox and Friends” segments on Sunday morning. His mission? To show a national audience the beauty of Eastern Arizona and illustrate some of the gorgeous landscape that’s being lost to the Wallow Fire. Managing Editor Kelly Kramer joined him to research a fire story that will run in the June 2012 issue of the magazine. This is her account of their whirlwind, 24-hour journey.
We turn north onto the Beeline Highway toward Payson. The sky is blue — bright blue — and sunset is still a little less than an hour away.
We drive past a digital highway sign, warning of extreme fire danger. We’re on high alert for fire information, it seems, and a little anxious about what we’ll see when we arrive in the White Mountains.
The sun is setting, and the sky is glowing orange and pink. I keep thinking that we’re going to round a corner and see flames. That’s not even possible — we’re not even to Payson.
A roadside Tonto National Forest sign warns: “No Fires.”
We turn east onto Highway 260, heading toward Show Low.
We pull over to allow an emergency vehicle by. Turns out, the emergency vehicle was a Sheriff’s Office suburban — and it was flashed by the speed camera. It’s the first of many emergency vehicles we’ll see on this trip.
Stars awaken over the Mogollon Rim. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen stars like this.
Another roadside sign: “Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Fire Restrictions in Place. No charcoal. No campgrounds.”
We arrive at my grandfather’s condo in Show Low, fumbling our way to the front door in the dark. We synchronize our alarm clocks for a 2 a.m. wakeup.
I wake up on my own — rising out of some dream that I can’t remember anymore. A few minutes later, I listen for signs that Robert is awake. He is.
We pop open the day’s first doses of caffeine — Diet Cokes from my grandfather’s fridge.
We’re back on the road, heading toward the media-staging area in Springerville, and we’re five minutes ahead of schedule.
We smell the fire, the smoke, for the first time — near milepost 369 along U.S. 60 — and we’re quiet for a few minutes. Both of us, I think, are afraid of what we’re going to see.
We spot an elk, a big one, grazing along the side of the road at milepost 371.
We’re 10 miles from Springerville. The smoke is heavy, and it’s impossible to see the stars that were so bright miles ago.
We arrive at an ADOT/Sheriff’s Office roadblock and are cleared to access the restricted zone. Robert tries to call Fox News Chief Meteorologist Rick Reichmuth, our contact for the morning. The call goes to voicemail, so we drive through Springerville as we wait to hear from Rick. Everything is dark, as the town has been evacuated. Fire personnel and law enforcement are stationed at two motels in town, and signs thank the firefighters for their work. It’s dark and quiet, and I can’t help but think of The Road.
We arrive at the media staging area at Becker Lake and meet the Fox News crew.
Robert and Rick complete their first live segment. It airs on “Fox and Friends.” During the segment, some of Arizona Highways’ images — from Hannagan Meadow, Bear Wallow Wilderness, Escudilla Mountain — run onscreen. They’re showing a national audience the beauty of Eastern Arizona.
We meet with one of the U.S. Forest Service’s fire information officers. He tells us of an opportunity to tour the burn area at 11 a.m., following a 10 a.m. press briefing.
During his second live segment with Fox News, Robert encourages people to return to the White Mountains when the Wallow Fire has been extinguished and the smoke clears. The local economies will need the support of travelers. We know that we’ll be back.
We’re killing time in the staging area before the 10 a.m. press briefing. Local media has arrived and everyone is clamoring for the fire gear that’s required for the tour opportunity. So far, I have pants, but still need a shirt.
Everyone races toward the lake, as a helicopter descends to gather water to spread over the fire. It’s an amazing sight, despite the smoke’s haze.
One of the commanders from the Pinetop Fire Department loans me his extra shirt, and my fire-safe tour ensemble is complete.
The planned press conference begins. Jerome Macdonald briefs the assembled media about fire statistics: 430,523 acres; 6% containment; 4,311 firefighters; and a cost of $27 million. And, there’s hope: “I think [the fire] is gonna have a hard time surpassing Rodeo-Chediski,” Macdonald says. Representatives from the Apache County Sheriff’s Office and the Eager and Springerville Police Departments inform the media that the evacuation orders for those towns have been lifted.
We’re sitting in a 106.7 “The Voice” van, preparing to head out to the fire line. Our driver is a radio journalist named Steve, who happens to be the great-nephew of Rose Awtrey, whom we profiled in our June 2011 issue as one of the ranchers in the “100 Years, 100 Ranchers project.” We have a caravan of four vehicles and fire information officers from Wisconsin and Orange County, California, are leading us. I’m struck by the diversity of people who’ve come to fight this fire. Fire suppression isn’t just a local and state effort.
A T-shirt vendor hocks Wallow Fire T-shirts from the side of the road. Steve, a former firefighter, informs us that they wear the T-shirts as a badge of pride after battling a blaze. After being cleared through another road closure, we see a series of small burn areas along the highway.
Dozens of elk graze along the west side of the road. Though they’re enveloped in smoke, they’ve found a large, grassy spot, and it doesn’t look as though they’ll be moving any time soon.
We stop near Tal-Wi-Wi Lodge in Alpine, where Division Supervisor Jimmy Harris explains the fire containment areas in that division. I interview a 25-year-old female hot shot from a Montana-based crew. She says she was only wearing lipstick because she lost a bet.
We stop along the side of the road and await word from another division supervisor, who tells us we’re going to the “dozer line,” a crucial point in keeping the fire from Alpine.
We arrive at the dozer line to a hillside of charred, but not leveled, pine trees. The line where the fire was forced to stop is a clear one, and slash piles indicate that the Forest Service was preparing a controlled burn before the fire started.
After spending several minutes speaking with division supervisor Jeff Riepe, we begin to leave this line. The wind picks up steam, which leads to an extended conversation about the effect of wind on fire.
We witness the most severe devastation we’ve seen all day — along Highway 191, south of Alpine. My stomach turns as we round a corner and an entire hillside of charred pine trees comes into view. We stop to take photos and we shoot an impromptu video of Robert discussing the fire.
We’re back in the radio van, making our way back toward the media staging area.
Steve turns up a Celine Dion song on the radio, and Robert and I can’t look at each other for fear of laughing.
We return to the media staging area and return our clothes to their rightful owner. After taking a few photos with the fire crew, we leave the staging area and Springerville.
We arrive at Red Devil Pizza in Pinetop, and eat for the first time since very early this morning, when we had flimsy peanut butter sandwiches.
Now that our blood sugar levels have stabilized, we’re on the road, heading for Phoenix. It’s been almost 24 hours since I left home. The GPS says we’ll arrive at 8:09 p.m.
We’re in the heart of the area that was charred by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire nine years ago. It’s a hopeful sight and a painful sight at the same time. Grasses and small trees have emerged amid the skeletal remains of pines, but it’s easy to see how violent Rodeo-Chediski was. It’s a harbinger, perhaps, of what portions of the Apache-Sitgreaves will look like a decade from now.
The sun is beginning to set, and the sky over the Valley burns pink and purple.
We’ve arrived at Robert’s house, and I transfer my gear into my car and head home. A million things run through my head, but I’m most struck by the damage of the fire. I expected to see something nuclear — something apocalyptic and terrifying. There are portions of the forests that have been absolutely decimated by the Wallow Fire, but there are areas that are resilient, that remain green. And that’s thanks to the thousands of people who are fighting this fire — people from all over the country. Of course, we won’t know the full extent of damage until the fire has been extinguished and the smoke clears, but one thing is certain: The White Mountains will need our support.
— Kelly Kramer, Managing Editor