On one of the hottest days of the year, Waddell resident, Louis Chappell of Rural Metro received a call of a possible brush fire in the White Tank Mountains. It was Friday afternoon, July 31, 1993, and over 110 degrees when a helicopter met him at Jackrabbit and Indian School Roads and flew him over the mountains to investigate. As Initial Attack Incident Commander, it was Louis’s job to evaluate the fire, the conditions, and how to proceed.
The fire was small when Louis and a hand crew (10 men) from Rural Metro set off for the very top of the mountain, by the towers, to fight the brush fire. It was almost 114 degrees that day, and for a good three hours they protected the towers from burning. Then, in the late afternoon, the conditions changed. “The wind picked up down in a canyon and [the fire] just took off,” Louis said. “We took off running.” The fire went to a couple of hundred acres in just a few minutes. By dark, the fire was no longer threatening the towers but was spreading fast.
Normally, a lot of firefighting takes place at night. The humidity comes up, winds die down, and you can set back fires, but the steep and rocky terrain of the White Tank Mountains made working at night too dangerous. That night, Louis had to watch the fire spreading from his back porch.
By Saturday, the winds had funneled up the steep canyons and whipped the fires through the dry grasses and scrub on the mountain. A command center was set up in the park and the fire was given a name. The fire had been called in by a worker who was building a road to the new 300’ tower they were installing on the mountain top. Sparks from the caterpillar blade hitting the rocks started the fire. So the newly named “Bug” fire was started by a caterpillar.
Ten Hot Shot crews were brought in. One crew was from Texas and four crews had just gotten back from working the “Geronimo” fire near Payson. 400 firefighters were working the fire by Sunday. They had a 2 to 3 mile hike into the mountains to get to the fire through steep and rocky terrain. It was also 117 degrees that day. Fifteen workers had to be treated for heat exhaustion.
“The only way you could really fight that fire was with hand crews and hand tools, and use the buckets and the airplanes to drop retardants and water on the hot spots”, said Louis. Air support consisted of six air tankers, three helicopters and two lead planes. The helicopters were picking up water out of the Beardsley Canal. Guided by the lead planes, water and retardant were dropped to protect the towers and to keep the fire out of the park. Observers were put on the back side of the mountains to watch for the safety of the hundreds of firefighters on the ground. By Monday, the work force was down to 100 and the temperature was down to 109 degrees.
The “Bug” fire took about a week to fight. A lot of effort went into those first few hours to protect the towers, and then the main objective was to protect the park. In the end, over 3000 acres were burned. I asked Louis about the saguaros’ ability to live through a fire. “Most saguaros don’t die in a fire like this,” Louis said. “The fire moves too fast.”
I learned a great deal about fighting brush fires by talking to Louis. He has a passion for his profession, just like a lot of people who are very good at what they do. The “Bug” fire was viewed from many back porches that week. Like my neighbors, I wondered how the firefighters would be able to save the park during one of the hottest weeks of the year, in terrain known for its ruggedness. Maybe they are all like Louis Chappell: men and women who enjoy challenges, the opportunity to put years of training to use, and have trust in the people they work with. Maybe they would all agree with Louis, who told me, “It was a fun fire, but it was really, really, really hot.”