Adventures from Back of Beyond

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Brin's Burn

We watched from the very beginning, as a huge plume of gray smoke ominously billowed up and over the red rocks. The contrast with the cloudless cobalt blue sky couldn't have been more striking.

It was a bone dry day in June, when humidity readings can be in single digits for weeks at a time. The moisture content of trees in the forest trees during this time of year can approach that of kiln-dried lumber.

A vagrant's campfire, we would find out later, accidentally started this forest fire. The arid conditions and gusty spring winds created an explosive conflagration that threatened the city of Sedona. This was the Brin's Burn.

We were headed to Sedona that day for some hiking in its superb backcountry. Instead, we were mesmerized by this gigantic mushroom cloud spiraling up over the city.

I knew right where to go to get a bird's eye view: the airport.

The Sedona airport sits atop a long skinny flat-topped mesa that drops off hundreds of feet on all sides, much like the deck of an aircraft carrier. Views to the north toward the fire were unobstructed.

When we arrived it was obvious we weren't the only ones who realized this would be a premiere spot to witness the fire. Dozens of people milled about, some with cameras, others with spotter scopes and binoculars.

At the base of the billowing smoke, we could see live flames dozens of feet high engulfing entire trees. The front line of the fire was moving quickly to the south, directly toward a densely packed area of fine custom homes.

By the time we arrived, a small twin-engine plane was already circling the scene. This, we would find out later, was the spotter plane. It's pilot would act much like an air traffic controller.

I knew from previous experience as a red-carded forest fire fighter what to expect next: aerial tankers. Planes would be mobilized and deployed much more quickly than even hotshot fire crews on standby, and especially during fire season, when planes and crews were kept at the ready for just such an occurrence. I anticipated the tankers would arrive from the west, where they were stationed about 40 air miles away at the Prescott airport.

I watched closely in that direction, and sure enough, within about 20 minutes there came a big twin-engine tanker, emblazoned in big orange markings. We also saw smaller helicopters dropping buckets of water, but the heavy lifting would be done by these big prop-driven bombers that could fly low and slow.

What happened next was fascinating. The front of the fire was advancing toward town, and in particular at the Soldier Pass area, location of some of the most expensive real estate in the state of Arizona. Several of Sedona's most famous red rock formations, each hundreds of feet high and spectacularly-eroded, were located directly north of the flames.

The spotter plane flew in front of the bomber, leading the way and literally showing it where to go. Both planes expertly banked around and through the rock formations to get low enough and to reach the best striking angle at the front of the fire. These pilots were highly skilled and knew exactly what to do.

The spotter plane pulled up and away, and the bomber stayed low on course. The bomb bay doors opened and we watched as the tanker dropped it's first critical load of fire retardant.

It was a direct hit. A cheer went up on Airport Mesa.

Not only it was a direct hit, but the drop was precisely at the optimal spot at the front of the advancing flames. It was superbly effective: it literally stopped the advancing flames in its tracks.

Countless other helicopter and tanker drops ensued that day, and later hot shot crews would do battle on the ground. But if not for that critical and precisely-delivered first bombing run, dozens of homes, perhaps entire neighborhoods, might have gone up in flames.