Smoke seeped into our homes, crept into our lungs and billowed toward the skies above the orange-red flames. Helicopters chopped overhead day and night, and planes dropped pink slurry onto the forest.
The Museum Fire, which started July 21 and gobbled 1,900-plus acres, hit the Coconino National Forest northeast of Flagstaff like a fleet-footed mountain lion pursuing its prey. Stealthy, fast-moving and furious.
Few are amazed that Flagstaff residents reached out and stepped up. As during many challenges to this mountain town, Flagstaff folks supported each other. We filled sand bags, fostered evacuees’ animals, offered spare rooms and made donations. When sleepless nights and the very air we breathed got us down, we helped each other up.
And the professionals — firefighters, medics, emergency planners and more — worked day and night keeping up with the fire. Journalists, too, worked day and night keeping us up to date.
Outside my local coffee shop, a small group of firefighters spoke quietly, caffeine-fueling before heading back to the woods. My sons’ father was a hotshot firefighter, and I could almost smell the smoke on his clothes he brought home after battling forest fires 30 years ago.
“Thanks for being here,” I told them, and a few nodded politely. I had to get into the shop fast then, because suddenly I was near tears. I felt such gratitude for these oh-so-young guys and gals who were fighting for the safety of the town I call home. Three more firefighters were waiting to order. “Oh, let me treat you,” I said, eager to move from embarrassing tears to action.
“I’d like to let you, but it’s already taken care of,” said Tyler, the Late for the Train barista. The shop was covering all firefighters’ drinks until the fire was out. Just one example of our community’s welcoming generosity. Other restaurants and coffee joints also offered firefighters free food and drinks, grateful businesses and neighbors hung up banners thanking the crews, and school children made sandwiches for them.
At a packed public meeting held at Flagstaff High School in the fire’s first week, approximately 20 agency spokespersons shared information. They explained the Ready, Set, Go evacuation system and encouraged residents to sign up for the Coconino County Emergency Notification System.
Everybody I know had already done that meeting. My summer housemate, employed as an intern by a government agency, said she was working with a handful of coworkers during the first week of the fire. Suddenly, in a startling cacophony, everyone’s phones buzzed, binged or jingled as the County did its thing. She was impressed.
As we all should be. The officials at the meeting were informative, calm and appreciative of their neighbors’ concerns. A handful of them lived in neighborhoods on the Set stage, and had their boxes packed and ready to “Go!” They were both encouraging and straight shooting, I thought. They painted the worst-case scenario of floods following flames, but said they would fight that too. And last week, city workers moved concrete barriers into neighborhoods threatened by flash flooding.
Today, rumors fly about the fire’s cause. We’ll learn soon enough how the blaze was ignited and who was responsible. But, for now, our town is safe. And we all cross our fingers the flooding will be kept at bay, like the flames were.
By Aug. 1, the fire was 91% contained. An astounding fact emerged: Only two minor injuries were reported out of more than 600 personnel (ground and air crews). And no structures burned. Everyone in Flagstaff knows we missed a canon-ball-sized bullet this time. One only has to look at photographs of last summer’s incinerated Paradise, California, to realize how lucky we were that the late monsoons finally arrived.
Of course it is more than luck. It is also the commitment of firefighters who do this every day, all summer and autumn long, as they travel from place to place working to keep us safe, in a world that is growing hotter and dryer every year.
And we say, thank you so much.