The first of a three-part series.
COCHISE COUNTY — Ten years ago, the Monument Fire devastated Cochise County. More than 30,000 acres of land burned in the Huachuca Mountains and more than 12,000 individuals were evacuated to avoid the flames.
The Herald/Review spoke with first responders, nonprofits, homeowners and journalists who were on the front lines of the blaze. Today, they share their first impressions of the fire, the initial response, and the complications that followed.
According to the National Parks Service website, the Monument Fire started on June 12, 2011, at approximately 1:15 p.m.
As the battalion chief when the fire broke out, Fry Fire Chief Mark Savage said the smoke from the fire was not immediately visible.
“I responded as part of the initial response with Palominas (Fire District) and the U.S. Forest Service, just after noon,” said Savage. “We actually responded with a Type 6 engine, which is a brush truck. At least when we started responding, we couldn’t see anything. We went down 92 'till it turned east. We hit Coronado Memorial Road, and about that time is when we could see the smoke coming off.”
Savage said that day had a red flag warning, equating to low humidity, high temperatures and high winds.
“We started out and came on shift that day with a heightened sense of concern,” said Savage. “For a minute, we thought it might hang up in the rocks, but it didn’t. As soon as it made it around the corner, it was off to the races.”
Fire Chief of Sierra Vista Fire & Medical Services Brian Jones recalled his response to the fire as a captain with the department.
“It’s one of those events that those of us who’ve been here for a while think about ‘where were you when the Monument Fire broke out?’ ” said Jones. “I can remember being at Fire Station 3, 675 Giulio Cesare Ave. I was in a class and just hearing about the fire, myself and Capt. (William) Wright walked outside and saw a huge plume of smoke to the south. We immediately got into one of our staff vehicles and headed out south. From that point on, the next 10 days were pretty much a blur of just chaos.”
The fire burned more than 3,100 acres on June 12 alone, and quickly claimed 600 additional acres just 24 hours later.
Former Fire Chief of Sierra Vista Fire & Medical Services and incident commander Randy Redmond said additional state resources were called once the fire reached the cross statue at Our Lady Of The Sierras Church (Cerro De La Virgen).
“As the fire made it up the backside of the Huachucas out by Monument Road, it started to get away,” said Redmond. “So we called in for accessory state resources, but as everyone remembers, there was a lot of fires going on in the state at the time. So, the teams that were available were not real proficient or schooled in our fuels. They were schooled in large timber fires. So, we got a team that came in that knew timber, but did not know high desert.”
Hereford resident Angela Daugherty said she wasn’t too concerned initially when the fire broke out, but became increasingly more fearful as the days progressed.
“I could see the smoke,” said Daugherty. “It was red and the air was so hot from it. Monday (June 13), I started packing things up and deciding ‘what do I want to keep if I have to leave?’
“I packed up photo albums, pictures, my mother’s dishes, things like that were sentimental to me. We started packing everything up and loading our pickup truck that had a camper shell on it. By Tuesday evening (June 14), we were on pre-evac(uation). So now we’re going like ‘now where are we going to go?’ ”
The Monument Fire jumped State Route 92 the first time on June 14, with 8,370 total acres burned at that point.
Daugherty said she ended up evacuating not once, but twice after initially heading to her mother-in-law's house off of Ramsey Road.
Scott and Joan Vasey, Hereford residents since 1987, recalled a similar first reaction to the fire as Daugherty.
“During the years we lived here in Hereford, there’s been a number of fires up on Carr Reef and Miller Peak," said Scott Vasey. "They usually stay on that side of highway 92. It was something you could really see at night, you see the hills burning. During the day, the helicopters and the planes came in to bomb the fire, and you saw the forest service trucks everywhere.”
City of Sierra Vista Public Information Officer Adam Curtis covered the fire as a reporter for the Herald/Review.
“Emotionally, you kind of take on the burden of some of the people you interview,” said Curtis. “It’s just a very stressful time, because when the fire is threatening the community at large, you know some people who don’t know if they are going back home that day.”
By the end of the first week of the fire 26,413 acres burned and the fire jumped SR 92 twice more. The blaze was still growing, along with the tensions and concerns for containing it.
NEXT FRIDAY: Part two of the series, discussing the evacuation process, logistics of managing the blaze and firsthand accounts of residents returning back to their properties.