Flagstaff, AZ – On June 19th, Paul Summerfelt drove his truck down a bumpy dirt road, straight toward towering orange flames. The Hardy Fire had just ignited.
"Looking down this valley is where I first saw the fire, and it was right up in that group of trees, and it was crowning out, fire was up twice the height of the treetops, 100 feet, right there."
The fire raged through the forest on the west side of the Rio de Flag. But the Rio is a grassy meadow two football fields wide here. So Summefelt, the Fuel Management Officer for th e Flagstaff Fire Department, was hopeful it wouldn't cross to the forest on the other side.
"Right here I was on the phone with the chief, saying I think we're good, this is going to be bad over here, but I think we're OK."
Then Summefelt rounded a corner, and the smoke lifted.
" just enough that I could see into this hillside, at that point I began to count the numbers of spot fires that I saw over on this hill, and when I hit 50, I was on the phone with the chief, there's fire everywhere to the left, it's crossed the Rio, you could tell we were going to have a pretty major run."
Right towards Little America Hotel and the Continental neighborhood.
Summerfelt navigates his truck across the Rio, to the forest where the Hardy Fire first blew up.
All that's left now is a graveyard of blackened sticks.
"What we had here was a very infrequent, very high intensity catastrophic fire, killed everything , black bark from ground to top of tree, nothing survived in here, this is the kind of fire that we get in these kinds of stands."
Stands that have not been thinned and have not seen fire for decades. Ponderosa pines have adapted to live, even thrive, with frequent, low intensity fire. It recycles nutrients in the soil. It keeps unwanted trees out. It burns the lower branches off bigger trees, so that flames can't climb into their crowns. But they can't withstand a fire like this one.
"This site will take decades, if not centuries to have a forest on it again
Ambi getting back in the truck "go back across the meadow here."
When winds whipped the Hardy Fire through this first stand of dense forest, Summerfelt says there's almost nothing firefighters could do.
"It is a time for us to get on the flanks of the fire, and try to hold those, but in terms of making any meaningful stand in front of that fire, you can't do it, it's far too dangerous, far too intense."
But on the other side of the Rio, where the fire had jumped, Little America Hotel had thinned the forest. Little stumps stick out from the ground where dense thickets of young ponderosas have been cleared out.
"The reality was that the work they did in here to thin this property saved the hotel. It allowed firefighters to get in here, it allowed the air tankers and helicopters, for their retardant and the water they were dropping to penetrate the canopy and get down on the fire."
Because of that, Summefelt says, the fire did not spread into nearby neighborhoods.
"I was estimating we could easily lose up to 1000 homes in Country Club, also a school, school administration building, WL Gore, we had a lot out ahead of us here, besides Little America. But this right here, this insurance policy cashed in Saturday afternoon."
As we drive further back into the forest, you can see how the fire gradually lost steam. At the edge, everything is scorched. But gradually the trees regain their needles, their crowns soon it's hard to even tell there was a fire.
It's a lesson that doesn't just apply to northern Arizona. Wally Covington directs the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
"We see this everywhere, throughout the west, it's the same pattern, if you do good ecological restoration, the ecosystems stand up to fire, and in fact fire is beneficial to them. If you don't, then it's Katie bar the door."
Which is exactly what happened when the Schultz Fire ignited a day later.