In 1995 I became part of the team building the new golf course, called SunRidge Canyon in Fountain Hills, AZ. At the time each golf hole was shaped and scraped to bare soil. Irrigation trenches 2 ft wide and 6 ft deep criss-crossed the course like a maze. The ground was now ready to grow grass on the tees, greens and fairways. The first thing we die was to set up a temporary maintenance facility using shipping containers for storage and a 500 gal fuel tank for gasoline and another for diesel fuel.
With fuel and fertilizer at the ready, we waited for bentgrass seed to arrive for the greens, and the hydro-seeding for the fairways to begin. Then, overnight, a severe storm came and fire broke out.
The Rio Fire started with a bolt of lightning from the sky, and exploded on the winds of a microburst and became the largest desert wildfire the state of Arizona had seen. The weekend of July 7-9, 1995, residents of Fountain Hills and Rio Verde were waiting for a possible order to evacuate.
On the second night of the fire I met Ron, my boss and we stood, near the top of the canyon, overlooking the golf course. From there we watched the flaming Rio fire line burning from the top of the McDowell Mountain across the desert to the Rio Verde River. Two miles of bright yellow flames lapped at the night sky.
As we looked out on the fire and talked about the risks, ash fell on us and on Ron’s truck.
“Remember the Oklahoma Bomber” Ron asked. “It happened in April, only 3 months ago. He used 6200 pounds of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel to blow off the whole side of that building.”
“Yes, I do remember. Why do you mention it now?”
“Well,” he said, “we’ve got a bigger bomb of our own here, with 9000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, 500 gallons of gas, and 500 gallons of diesel fuel. If this fire gets any closer we’ve got to get rid of all of them so we don’t blow up the town.”
Ron crossed his arms, leaned against his truck and then looked at me. “Any ideas?” He asked.
I felt like I was on the spot, and had to say something, hopefully intelligent.
“Yes,” I said. We could eliminate the fertilizer risk if we could put all the fertilizer bags in these irrigation trenches and keep them away from the fuel.”
“What about the fuel tanks,” he asked
“I don’t know about that.”
“Well, what I’d do is bulldoze dirt over them to cover them up and insulate them from the fire.
“Isn’t all this going to take a lot of time?” I asked.
“We’ve got the machines on property. It just depends on how much labor we can scare up quickly.”
“So,” I asked, “when do you want to start?”
Ron scanned the fire line pensively, and then said, “When that fire reaches the first house out there on the edge of town. If houses start burning we can be sure the fire will get here.
At first light helicopters sucked water from our small SunRidge Canyon pond to dump on the blaze. Winged airplanes dropped loads and loads of orange fire-retardant which slowed, then stopped the fires advancement across the desert.
The house on the north edge of town never burned; The SunRidge Canyon bomb never happened; and the crew went to work the next morning, not knowing the tension and anxiety of the night before, or that the Rio Fire burned 23,000 acres.