Story by Nick Scala, photos by Josh Morgan
The smoke swells as its billowing plumes blanket the sky across the visible horizon. Dark clouds, accented by a reddish hue from the raging inferno below, spread across the Eastern Arizona skies. For the last nine days, the Wallow Fire invaded hundreds of thousands of acres of land, human property and animal habitat. Unhindered by the efforts of hundreds of firefighters, the wildfire raged with an intensity matched only by a handful of previous fires.
“It’s kinda pretty in a horrible way, ain’t it?” asked Bryon Harrington, an evacuating resident of Eager, Ariz., thinking out loud as he watched the dark gray, glowing orange smoke cloud from a parking pullout three miles outside of Springerville, Ariz.
Harrington lives about five miles from the fire line on June 7 — day nine of the fire. He is aware that the distance is something that could easily be eaten by the fire, especially with the unpredictable 40 to 50 mile-an-hour winds in the direction of Springerville, Eager and Greer, Ariz.
He stood there amongst a crowd of evacuees from Springerville and Eager Ariz. as they stared with irritated, bloodshot eyes at the thick, glowing cloud of smoke that blanketed their homes. They struggled with the reality that the Wallow Fire, soon could be the largest wildfire in Arizona history — spanning more than 430,000 acres. The headlights multiplied as more people fled the town and gathered on the hill to find comfort in each presence of neighbors and others like them. Living in two small towns with a combined population of almost 6,000 people, the evacuees have known one another most of their lives.
A giant smoke plume grew and fell down upon the towns, swallowing any doubt the evacuees may have had about their decision to leave their homes and most of their earthly possessions. “It makes you realize how small we are, compared to nature as a whole,” said Carlos Torres, 29, who lives in central Springerville near the Round Valley High School dome. His daughter, Hannah, was perched on his shoulders, and the two stood next to his older brother Nick, 31, who also had his daughter balanced on his shoulders. Carlos was confident his house was safe, but Nick was less hopeful. “Right now, I’m looking at it and thinking I might not have a house to come back to,” he said while engaged in a heated stare-off with the bright orange eyes of the fire. “It’s sad to say, but that was once my playground,” Nick said as he described past ATV adventures at Escudilla mountains, a forest just south of Springerville. “And now, it’s all gone.”
Lakeside, Ariz. fire inspector and Wallow Fire public information officer Kelly Wood noticed the slightest change in smell of the fire. “Can you smell that?” Wood asked. “The smoke has a different smell to it today. You can tell by the smell that it is burning nearby.” While people like the Torreses and Harringtons fled to shelters in Pinetop, St. Johns and Show Low, Ariz., volunteers and staff, like Wood, stayed behind to feed, assist and direct the more than 4,300 wild land firefighters and hotshot crews that are scouring the region between northeastern Arizona and western New Mexico for shifts lasting up to 18 hours.
Lakeside Fire Department firefighter and EMT Bart Moseley made a pit stop across from the Springerville rodeo grounds, which was base camp for a majority of the firefighters, to buy a Wallow Fire t-shirt before heading out for the day. He spoke about his experience as if it was typical and normal. On day three — May 31 — his crew witnessed flames roll over their first base camp, just outside of Alpine, Ariz. “Spot fires grew all around us and everyone pulled out. All of our stuff got burned over including our hose,” Moseley said. “It gets hairy and a little scary out there,” he added before crew members pulled him back into the fire engine.
The majority of what Moseley and most hand crews perform is called back-burning operations. This involves setting controlled fires around the perimeter of the fire, which creates a barrier of burned forest and prevents the fire from expanding. But back burning was unsuccessful in the beginning stages of the Wallow Fire because extreme winds blew embers beyond the burnout spots, leaping over the fighters’ barrier and forcing them to retreat further away form the fire line. “People keep saying that they’ll be able to control this fire once these winds die down, but this is the wind we have all the time,” said a frustrated Harrington. Moseley said the crews are “98 percent looking at saving structures.” Something they successfully carried out until more than 20 homes were confirmed destroyed in the Greer area after day 10.
On day 12 of the fire — June 9 — the towns of Springerville and Eager were abandoned, only occupied by a handful of residents who were granted work permits to assist firefighters in any way they could. Auto shops and gas stations maintained and fueled fire engines. A couple of restaurants fed the crews and the others who chose to stay behind.
Eric Silva and Traci Speicher, his fiancée, live on the north side of Springerville, near graveyard hill. Speicher evacuated, but Silva stayed behind to care for his old, blind and deaf dog, Big Dog, because he doesn’t think Big Dog can handle the transition to a shelter or hotel in his condition. Silva and Speicher, who have been engaged for two years, were set to be married on Wednesday, June 15 at Big Lake, which is located in the mid-western region of the fire. Just three weeks ago, he was at Big Lake, mowing and grooming the meadow for the reception. “I love my mountains,” said the 42-year-old Springerville native with glossy eyes as he braced himself on the fence outside his home. “It’s so unbelievably sad to me. I grew up on these mountains and met my fiancée here and wanted to get married on these mountains.” Silva’s family has lived in Springerville for more than a hundred years. His father, Dennis Silva, was the mayor for 15 years when Eric was growing up. “After the Rodeo Fire, I always thought about the possibility of these mountains catching fire. But never like this,” he said.
The Rodeo-Chediski ran through the Shallow and Pinetop region and is the largest wildfire in Arizona history, destroying 468,638 acres. But it’s only a matter of time until the Wallow Fire sits on top of the list. On day 15 — June 12 — Springerville and Eager were taken off evacuation status and residents slowly trickled back home. Speicher returned home to her fiancé on Sunday after being away for four nights. They’ve moved the wedding to a restaurant in Springerville but will still be married on Wednesday. “It’s so nice to be back home,” Speicher said while laughing with excitement over the phone. “It is just amazing.” “Our wedding is on and all of our family is in town,” Silva said. “I feel a lot better, no doubt about it.”
While the Wallow Fire was no longer considered a serious threat to the region, the damage to their backyard has already been done. “It’s a tragedy for this area,” said Mike Nuttall, Springville Police Department chief. “I don’t know how we are going to recover from this. It will take years and years.”