Rest in peace, West Fork, Oak Creek Canyon
Charles Dickens in his novels of Victorian England used to speak of thick, foul miasma of air that stung the nose and burned the eyes.
We had that here yesterday as an inversion layer crowded the smoke to the earth, grounding the air support helicopters and spotter planes.
I attended a community meeting in Sedona that seemed to be a platform for showcasing the dozens of support agencies working to control the fire.
The nasty little secret they don’t tell you is that to ‘control the fire’ they actually burn more. I was surprised to hear that the fire which had consumed Oak Creek Canyon would now be deliberately increased to three times its original size by firefighting units to create a buffer of safety.
What they mean by this is that the priority is to save people and structures, period. The pristine slot canyon that was West Fork is no more. What wasn’t burned by the original flash fire is now being systematically bombed with napalm-like fire starters to burn out the little that is left.
On the canyon floor, fire rings has been set around all of the structures, to ‘pull down’ the fire from the slopes of the canyon to the floor to save the buildings. What this means is that there will be a narrow fringe of green around the buildings, surrounded by char.
Who would want to live in such a place? Who would want to visit it?
Perhaps my initial shock and disbelief has now turned to the anger stage of mourning. I hold two images in my mind: one of the canyon that I knew and loved in all its serene beauty, and the other, the blackened destruction created by the firefighters who actually at this stage are fire starters. It is difficult to find gratitude for that.
The road through the canyon will not be open for a number of weeks, if then.
I do not know when I will be able return, or even if I want to.
I want to keep the memories I have.
I’ve lived in Arizona for over 50 years, and for most of that time Oak Creek Canyon has been my haven.
I rode down the switchbacks in my girlfriend’s boyfriend’s ’57 Thunderbird, when it was brand new and we were, too. I had my Senior High ditch day at Slide Rock. I swam naked in the creek with one boyfriend and was proposed to by another, sunbathing on the red rocks near the creek.
Oak Creek fed my soul. When my first marriage was disintegrating I’d come down to the creek and stick my feet in the water and just cry until my toes were numb, and then dry my eyes and my feet and pick up the pieces of a challenging life.
This pristine beauty has been a sanctuary and an anchor for me, and I thought it would be always be there. Now it is not.
In just 24 hours, with 40 mile per hour winds and 10% humidity, the fire started north of Slide Rock and raced through the entire canyon. What had been a lush, green oasis in the desert, visited by something like 4 million people a year, is now a blackened crater.
I should be grateful. Thus far no structures have been damaged or people hurt. Part of the canyon, the lower part, they say is still at present intact, untouched by the fire.
Yet I mourn what has passed from my life and never will return.
I can never again experience the healing green, the murmur of the creek, the perspective from the top that said, “It will be OK. This, too, shall pass.”
For it has passed, and this will never be OK.