Dr. Stephen Driggs spent a recent May weekend mountain biking with church members near the Driggs’ family property in Greer.
While riding, the group saw smoke. The Wallow fire was nearby and had burned about 2,900 acres.
Driggs, a Mesa dentist, recalls that a local forest ranger told him she was worried. She told him there was something “dangerous” about how this fire was acting.
When Mesa business owner Dave Campbell woke up Memorial Day at his cabin in Alpine, the Chandler resident and public relations specialist wanted to get a few things done on the computer.
But before he could get started, he looked out and saw a red haze. Instead of the familiar greeting of fresh air on a cool morning at 8,000 feet, he smelled smoke.
“My stomach just sunk. I knew what it was,” Campbell said.
It was the start of a massive forest fire, the likes of which Arizona hasn’t seen in nine years.
The Wallow fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is the second largest in Arizona history, having burned more than 348,000 acres. It’s second only to the Rodeo-Chediski fire, which started June 18, 2002, and consumed more than 467,000 acres. That blaze wasn’t under control until after Fourth of July weekend.
Despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters — including dozens from the East Valley and hundreds from out of state — the Wallow fire continues to rage uncontained. Seasonal high winds in the area haven’t helped and there’s no rain in the forecast.
How the fire started is still under investigation. But one forest official pointed out that there wasn’t any lightning in the area when the embers began May 29 and it was likely human caused.
Wednesday night, fire officials said the Wallow fire had swept through Greer. Fire information officer Suzanne Flory told The Associated Press firefighters had a good stand and were able to protect the main part of town, but some structures were lost.
“We’re very concerned. That property has been with us for so long and we have so many family memories there,” Driggs said Wednesday afternoon before the latest update on the fire. “It would be almost like losing a family member to have that burn down and look like the bottom of the fire place.”
Driggs hopes to get up there in the next month to evaluate the situation, and continue his family’s tradition of summer visits.
But like other property owners, he’s in a holding pattern.
Chandler’s Campbell is also waiting for more information.
Campbell and his wife have owned their Alpine home for several years. They moved to Arizona in 1979 and spent years fishing and exploring Arizona’s high mountains before deciding to buy their property near the New Mexico border. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, the area reminded the Campbells of the lush forests they’d left.
Like Greer, Alpine’s been evacuated in recent days, along with Springerville, Blue River, Eagar, Sunrise and Nutrioso.
Official reports from Thursday say 16 structures have been destroyed in Wallow’s path. For the most part, property owners don’t know what structures, or where.
“It’s frustrating,” Campbell said. “You’re not getting a lot of solid information from the Forest Service. There’s propaganda and euphemisms. For someone sitting down here it’s difficult to get information.”
At about 2 p.m. Thursday, Apache County Sheriff's Office officials announced they are in the process of notifying residents whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged in Alpine and Nutrioso. According to a release, five homes were damaged.
Officials have not been able to start confirming and identifying homes lost in Greer because of fire activity.
Campbell said the family has always been prepared for a major fire. They never put anything of value in the cabin.
“There’s sentimental value, but not monetary value,” Campbell said. “We were kind of prepared. They didn’t give anyone much of a notice to evacuate.”
Campbell said he saw some of his neighbors on television talking about the evacuation and fire. He’s called around, but now the area is pretty much vacated.
“I’ve taken the tack now that I’m not going to kill myself trying to get the information. …
“This is such a tragedy. I love this place. It kills me to see what’s happening up there,” Campbell said.
Vacation escapes dominate many of the White Mountain communities. Comparably few people live there year-round. Many of those who do make a living welcoming out-of-town guests.
Driggs’ father first brought him to Greer as a child. He remembers that before refrigeration was available, the family would get ice during the summer from the local “ice house.”
During winters, Driggs explains, Greer residents collected blocks of ice formed by lakes, streams and creeks, packed them in sawdust and stored them in an ice house. The frozen water would last sometimes through July, offering a way to keep food cool or make ice cream during summer escapes from the Valley.
“It was a neat place to be in the summertime,” Driggs said.
Today, the property is 20 acres with five cabins. A creek runs through the land and there’s a small trout farm.
Driggs’ brother is one of the few residents in Greer. He has left his property for his daughter’s place.
“When you live in the forest, you’re always, always concerned about this. Is there going to be a fire? The national forests in some parts are right up to our property,” he said.
Driggs said the family has been careful, keeping trees and brush near the cabins trimmed, and a neighbor who owns a strip of land nearby has done a good job to create a barrier between the property and the forest.
But Driggs wonders whether it’s enough.
“We should have done a better job. Mostly there’s grass and not trees, but that’s always in the back of your mind,” he said.
On Wednesday, Driggs said he’s hopeful about getting to his Greer escape in a few weeks.
“At this point, none of the trees or forest has burned within a few miles of our land. We plan to get up there this summer if that’s possible.”
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