On Saturday morning, June 17, I set out on a five-day cross-country trip to Sedona, AZ with my oldest brother David, who had moved there two years earlier. It was a much needed vacation for me and a necessary trip for my brother to retrieve some things from home in Buffalo, NY.
On Sunday morning, the Brins Mesa Fire in Oak Creek Canyon started one mile north of Sedona. We watched the fire's progress on the national news as we made overnight stops in Abilene, KS; Colorado Springs and Durango, CO.
By the time we arrived in Arizona on Wednesday, June 21, the fire had already burned 1,500 acres of the Cocanino National Forest and was only five-percent contained. More than 400 firefighters were already committed to the effort.
It was the first thing we saw as we came down Interstate 17 out of Flagstaff, requiring us to take an alternate route because Route 89A was closed through Oak Creek Canyon. As we made our way north on Route 179, we could see the smoke billowing behind the silhouette of the famous Bell Rock outside of the Village of Oak Creek.
I've been to a lot of fires in my 25 years as a firefighter but this was nothing like anything I had ever seen before. I was definitely out of my element.
Naturally, my curiosity was peaked and we had to go in for a closer look. Near dusk, we drove into West Sedona to Seven Canyons Resort where my brother works. We were able to look straight up at Brins Mesa where the fire originated on June 18, reportedly due to camp fire a transient failed to extinguish before moving on.
We were only looking at one side of the fire, a small chunk, but the flames were clearly visible, spreading across the mountain, sometimes in large clusters and elsewhere scattered with smaller spot and drop fires from the mesa above.
The fire had caused the evacuation of 400 residents of the canyon and threatened more. If given the opportunity to jump Route 89A and Oak Creek, millions of dollars in business and residential property and thousands of lives would hang in the balance.
I've done some reading and watching of wildfires on the web and through normal news sources but I've never experienced anything of this magnitude close up. First of all, the "work environment" for the firefighters was unlike anything I've experienced. The rugged terrain is treacherous at best in some spots and at the very least, slow and laborious across the mountainside. Thick pines and red rock are stacked between the firefighters and their escape routes.
We revisited Seven Canyons the following afternoon to witness one of the most spectacular firefighting efforts I'd ever seen in my life.
Three Sikorsky CH-54 Skycranes were using the resort's golf course ponds to draw water for the fire fight. Like huge flying pre-historic birds swooping down, the Skycranes dropped their 28-foot-long suction hoses into the ponds, sucking up some 2,850 gallons in about 30-45 seconds.
These monster choppers would drop down over the golf course's water hazard, drop their line in, hover briefly just above the pond surface, pick up their load and lift off while water was still spraying from the end of the hose as the cap was automatically closed from the cockpit.
They would then fly up to the Mesa and rain down their load on the raging fire. Each helo would repeat this sequence every four minutes or so. I was less than a hundred feet away when I witnessed this element of the fire fight.
The deliberately orchestrated timing of the pick-ups and drops had the rhythm of a helicopter ride at an amusement park, with the whole ride stopping occasionally to drop passengers off and pick up new ones. As needed, the choppers would head off to the helibase at the Sedona Airport on top of a nearby plateau to refuel or receive maintenance.
I spoke with a few smokejumpers from Oregon who were overseeing the helispot set up at the resort. One of them indicated that they were not accustomed to fighting such a large fire. They usually repelled into the fire early on in an effort to keep the fire from spreading.