Devastation times two

Within two weeks, Cave Creek residential areas suffered two devastating fires, both causing sizable evacuations with many of the same residents being evacuated twice for three or more days each time and left wondering how significantly their properties may have been affected. In each case, the media provided news and coverage when there were leaping flames or heroic firefighters to showcase. The residents however, were largely left uninformed with all kinds of questions, but no answers.

Both wildfires were attributed to human error and we can only hope the human errors are over for a while, but there’s no way to predict if that’s the case. Another pertinent question, is the nature of those human errors. Once again, no information. Many have heard rumors regarding the cause of the fires and I believe I’ve heard credible information regarding the location and cause of the fires.

My understanding is, if a wildfire is started on federal land, a felony charge can and sometimes does result even when it’s accidental. My further understanding is if it’s not federal land, misdemeanors charges can result. While some may feel sympathetic toward a person who accidently starts a fire, shouldn’t consideration be given to the circumstances? If a fire is started due to not taking proper or normal precautions for the activity being performed, then that person is negligently endangering other people and property.

Some years back, a resident of North Cave Creek drove their vehicle through the rapidly flowing Cave Creek Wash and unfortunately was washed downstream. This individual attempted to drive through the wash to get home and feed horses and dogs, but it didn’t work out and a rescue mission ensued. Afterwards a misdemeanor citation was issued under what was called Arizona’s Stupid Motorist Law. I don’t know what the rescue mission cost, but it had to be a small fraction of the cost of fighting each of the two wildfires.

What is the official position on charges against those who “accidently” started the two Cave Creek wildfires? I have no idea, I’ve searched, but haven’t seen any mention about the subject. Holding a person responsible for negligent actions is not motivated by a fine, but rather to acknowledge what occurred and serve as a deterrent so others will give greater thought to what they are doing and ensure that proper safety precautions are taken.

There is more to consider than those who accidently started the fires. The fires destroyed 8 homes, 10 other structures, at least 2 automobiles, several tour vehicles and over 2000 acres of Sonoran Desert. In both fires, the fuel that allowed the fires, consisted largely of invasive weeds, particularly the globe chamomile weeds also known as yellowballs and stinknet. In recent years these invasive weeds have grown throughout Maricopa County and beyond. The globe chamomile weeds first appeared in the early 2000’s and now appear throughout our area and have become a danger. This is not new information, as we have been warned about globe chamomile by the media including the Sonoran News and by the Mayor and others in local government. We have been warned on many occasions of the danger to native desert plants and of the severe fire risk resulting from its proliferation in our desert. We have been advised to protect our structures by clearing it from our property where it could put our houses or other structures in harms way. Far too many residents and the Desert Foothills Land Trust have ignored this advice and I’m sure now regret not taking it seriously.

Both Cave Creek fires were fueled by weeds, but burned much more, because the fuel existed to keep the fires going. Residents who removed their weeds and or treated them with weed killer and pre-emergent fared better than others. However, even those who dealt responsibly with their weeds suffer from the new look of our devastated desert.

Maybe these fires will result in a wakeup call and we will all address the weed problem in the future, but I’m doubtful. Perhaps the town should require weed care, but I’m not sure the town has the authority to do so. So, we as property owners have to face up to the reality of the risks on behalf of ourselves and our neighbors and either get our hands dirty, or hire landscapers to address the problem.
A word of caution however. Once these weeds dry up, as they have now, using gas powered equipment could result in a fire. Also, some weed cutting equipment utilizes metal blades or wire for cutting, which when hitting a rock can cause a spark, which can start a fire. Thus, now that everything is very dry, having immediate access to water, a fire extinguisher or other equipment to deal with a fire is important. This is one of the reasons why it’s best to remove the weeds in the spring before they have dried, but this year it’s too late to cut them in the spring. Merely cutting the weeds will not eliminate the risk, the cut weeds must be gathered and disposed of in the landfill or they remain fuel for a fire. Finally, to save prized vegetation, it’s advisable to cut a barrier for vegetation, such as saguaro cactuses, trees and ocotillos.

Fire season is not over and if some of the dry vegetation is not removed, another wildfire could occur.

Bruce Biemeck
Cave Creek, Arizona