Officials talk evacuations, prevention in wake of fires

By CONNOR DZIAWURA
Foothills Focus Staff Writer

A little over a week after the East Desert Fire burned 1,492 acres, forcing some 130 homes to evacuate in the Cave Creek area, the town found itself reeling from yet another fire.

Dubbed the Ocotillo Fire, the blaze was contained by firefighters at 980 acres June 2—but not before it burned down eight homes and 12 outbuildings, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

In response to the two emergencies, fire and city officials held a public meeting after containment June 2 to provide the community with information and answer questions.

The Ocotillo Fire started the afternoon of May 30 along Ocotillo Road, roughly 1.3 miles northwest of Cave Creek, but grew rapidly, forcing the evacuation an estimated 500 homes, or up to 860 people, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. The evacuation was partially lifted May 31 and fully June 2.

The Ocotillo Fire was determined to be human caused and is under investigation, as is the East Desert Fire.

The latter started in the area of 24th Street and Desert Hills, 4 miles north of Cave Creek Regional Park, on May 17. Roughly 130 homes were evacuated overnight, Tiffany Davila, a Forestry and Fire Management spokeswoman, previously told Foothills Focus. Residents were allowed home May 19. The fire was contained May 22.

Much of the June 2 public meeting was focused on evacuation protocols and notifications as well as the reason residents were urged to leave their homes, which officials noted was a point of contention. Some residents refused to evacuate, which a few officials called dangerous and a hindrance to response.

Town Marshal Adam Stein said Cave Creek officials make evacuation decisions based on what they are told by fire officials. And when an evacuation is deemed necessary, as it was in the case of the East Desert and Ocotillo fires, those in charge are careful to clear a large enough area to account for rapid changes.

“We understand it’s an inconvenience for people to have to leave their homes, but again, we’re out trying to save lives and we’re out trying to save your property,” Stein explained.

In regard to people who were wondering why they couldn’t return home sooner, Stein said just “because people can’t see fire doesn’t mean the danger was any less,” pointing to the Ocotillo Fire and its downed power lines, compromised propane tanks and other issues, like generators and solar systems backfeeding. Plus, he reiterated at one point, fires can change direction quickly. “It was a very hazardous scene.”

During the Q&A session, one woman, who didn’t identify herself, suggested more frequent communication with residents in situations such as these.

Stein, however, is one of several personnel who argued it’s not that easy, as he said there are various responding agencies that all have to provide and approve information before it can be released. Not to mention rapid changes in the situation that can quickly render information stale.

Stein and others pointed to the Red Cross shelter at Cactus Shadows High School as well as various internet channels through which information is funneled, though Stein did say the town is working on improving in the future.

“We realize that this system is not a perfect system, folks,” Stein acknowledged. “We also realize that we’ve learned from things, and we’ve definitely put on the list that we are going to have a single point of contact for the town of Cave Creek.”

Much of the meeting was also spent on fire hazards.

Dave Wilson, assistant chief of the Daisy Mountain Fire Department, cautioned that fuel loads are 600 times higher than normal this year.

“These fires are unique, they’re challenging to begin with, but we’re facing some new challenges in this day and age that we’ve never faced before,” Wilson said, urging residents to clear their yards and create a “defensible space” of at least 30 feet to stop fires from reaching homes. Cave Creek CBO Mike Baxley later even suggested stretching the defensible space to 100 feet.

But Wilson said of both fires, still a problem was “spotting,” or the projection of embers by wind. That wind, he said, can spread these embers “up to 100 feet, sometime 100 yards in these conditions.” Attic fires were caused this way, he recalled.

“We are up against a major challenge in your town,” Wilson said bluntly, again highlighting the importance of defensible spaces. “I can’t sugarcoat it. You should be a bit frightened. This could happen again and probably will. … I’m not trying to scare you, but I am in a sense, because this is big and could happen again.

“And it doesn’t discriminate against what home when the dense fuel loading is between the homes and the embers are flying.”

Globe chamomile, also called “stinknet,” is a notable form of fuel to which much of the meeting was dedicated. Town spokeswoman Tara Alatorre, who said it is easy to spot because it smells “vile,” said the town will compile a dedicated page of resources regarding the invasive and flammable plant on its website—and she noted ongoing efforts of the town, residents and other agencies to address it.

“It’s very imperative that we, as a community, try and manage this weed before it flowers, because once it flowers and goes to seed, you’re spreading it community-wide,” Alatorre cautioned.

In response to a submitted question about passing an ordinance to enforce private property maintenance, officials remained uncertain.

“I think one of our challenges is many of the communities that have these ordinances in place are in a different climate that we are,” Baxley responded, moments later adding, “We need to find some way to look at things that may be a hybrid of other jurisdictions. I don’t know of any personally that take in account the unique topography and vegetation that we do have here.”

But other communities that have enacted ordinances, Stein added, have a “different mindset (and density) than what we have in Cave Creek.”

“Unfortunately, when we talk about these things, we have to look at the big picture. I’m a big fan of the defensible areas that all the chiefs have spoken about,” he continued, saying that if anyone can’t pay to have stinknet removed from their property or even do it themselves, then they should contact the town for potential solutions.

Though Stein and other present officials repeatedly championed defensible spaces, local resident Bill Basore, standing at the podium, posed a challenge: Officials should provide annotated images explaining what does and doesn’t work.

“To you, ‘defensible space’ is a very clear term. But to me, it’s not,” Basore stressed. “You know, I’m not a professional at this.”

Fire officials took turns offering resources, which include brochures at the fire station in Carefree, as well as information accessible at cavecreek.org, carefree.org, daisymountainfire.org and maricopa.gov.

And earlier in the meeting, Rural Metro Fire Chief John Kraetz had even suggested driving through the intersection of Spur Cross and Fleming Springs roads, where he said a residence to the north has a good example; but across the street, on the southeast, he said, there are structures that didn’t survive.

“Seriously, go around and look at some of those houses and it’ll amaze you how just that little bit of effort can really protect the entire town,” Kraetz said.

The fire that burned down the historic Black Mountain Feed Store on June 1 was also addressed, though no updates were provided. Kraetz said that one remains under investigation as well.

To watch the full archived meeting, visit https://youtu.be/8aaCK7uACb0.