CROWN KING — The line between night and day blurred. Walking out her front door, Lorrie Wyatt was surrounded by blackness. A distant, orange light breaking through the sky’s dark ceiling. Ash began to rain down.

It wasn’t hell. It was Crown King, Arizona. Her hometown was being swallowed by flames from the 2012 Gladiator Fire.

“That was the most scared I’ve ever been,” Lorrie says.

The catastrophic wildfire for a small rural community charred more than 16,000 acres of land, forcing evacuations of neighboring towns and costing an estimated $14 million to contain

In the years since the Gladiator Fire, the community’s already small population has declined more than 50%. People who choose to stay, know they might find themselves living through a nightmarish wildfire again.

Just this past May, the Crooks Fire raged only a few miles north of the town. And, experts in wildfire prevention and studies are predicting above normal potential for significant fires in the Southwest through August.

The Crooks Fire shut down Senator Highway, the main road that connects Crown King to Prescott, the nearest major city. Credit: National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Lorrie and her husband own Crown King Saloon & Eatery, a historic building with roots dating back to the early 1900s when the mining town was flourishing.

Between a flood of fire memories, Lorrie pauses and takes unsteady breaths. She stares beyond the saloon doors at the ridge where you can see the same ponderosa pines and fir trees of the Bradshaw Mountains that were once engulfed in flames — that once threatened her home.

“We really thought that was going to be the fire that took out the town,” she says.

She’s working in the saloon, surrounded by neighbors and visitors, remembering the day wildfire came to their mountain town.

“We were watching the ridge and we all looked at each other and we were like, ‘Where are you guys gonna go?’ And nobody knew.”

A decade after the big fire that burned through Crown King, the bar’s patrons are lively, crushing Coors and sharing trail stories over bacon burgers.

Born in Phoenix, Lorrie moved to the town in the 1980s when her parents built a cabin in the Bradshaw Mountains. Residents like her are few. The remote town had a population of 83 in 2020, dwindling from 177 in the 2010 census.

For most Arizonans, Crown King is a temporary destination just south of Prescott. Named after a mine that shuttered decades ago, the town is ready for weekend warriors in their off-road rigs. It’s a respite for people seeking refuge in mountain forests often more than 20 degrees cooler than nearby desert cities, when months can pass before the average high drops below 100 degrees.

The 37-mile drive from Prescott along Senator Highway, a forest service road with rutted dirt trails and sweeping vista views, is dotted with canopies of oak groves and towering pines. Turning onto Main Street, you’ll see the saloon, a couple restaurants, a general store, and dozens of dirt-spattered Jeeps, ATVs, dirt bikes and side-by-sides. 

Lorrie Wyatt stands next to the Crown King Saloon’s iron stove, which she says becomes the most popular area for customers during winter because of its warmth. Wyatt was born in Phoenix and moved to Crown King in the 1980s. Credit: Griffin W. Riley

“We love the visitors,” Lorrie says. “We rely on the visitors. I mean, we are a tourist town.”

But living on a mountainside, in the middle of a national forest, in an Arizona tourist town perpetually battling droughts, has its issues. Groups unaccustomed to forest living are seen flicking cigarette butts along dirt paths that cut through dangerously dry pine trees or wasting water washing their car that will be dirty minutes later from the enduring gusts of trail dust. 

Wasted water and inadvertent recklessness lead to constant risk for the residents of Crown King. A risk — if gone wrong — that visitors may never witness firsthand, and certainly won’t live through like locals, whose homes and families may, or may not, survive another wildfire.

Officials determined Gladiator Fire was caused by a human and started in a home near the downtown heart of the community. Flames fueled by fierce winds and fed by parched vegetation swept through the Prescott National Forest, burning through chaparral and igniting 20- to 30-foot walls of flames.

Some critics said officials focused on saving structures in Crown King, while the fire swiftly raged to 500 acres and shifted to a Type 1 Incident Management team charged with overseeing large wildfires of national significance that require inter-agency support. 

People who live in Crown King flooded message boards, desperate for signs that those structures, their homes, survived the fire.

A review found that once the blaze hit a prescribed fire area from a 2003 effort, it “slowed dramatically, allowing the crews to contain the fire edge directly rather than attempt the riskier backfiring operation.”

Most days at the Crown King Saloon & Eatery look exactly like this, with off-roading vehicles parked out front and up and down the street. The building, which was built around 1890 near Lake Pleasant before being dismantled and moved to Crown King, has a wood construction that makes it more susceptible to even passing embers from a fire. Credit: Griffin W. Riley

Prescribed fires, or planned burns, aimed at charring vegetation so there’s less fuel for fire to spread, are one way to control deadly blazes that can destroy whole communities. But the wildfire and forest management tool widely supported by fire experts has risks.

Now, it has come under renewed scrutiny after federal investigators found in May that the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, destroying at least 330 homes and ravaging nearly 342,000 acres, was caused by two prescribed fires started by the U.S. Forest Service.

In May, the head of the Forest Service temporarily suspended prescribed fires on national forest lands for a review of the process amid climate change and the increased chance of massive deadly and destructive fires.

“These burns are intended to reduce hazardous fuel loads caused by debris that has built up in the forest understory, thereby reducing wildfire risk. And they top the list of essential tools managers need to use for improving forest conditions,” Chief Randy Moore wrote. “Yet climate change, drought, dry fuels throughout the country and other factors have led to increasingly extreme wildfires, so we must change the way we make decisions about when and where to burn.”

Donald Falk is a University of Arizona professor and ecologist and wildfire expert who’s worked in the field for 25 years. He has seen the scale of wildfires balloon dramatically. Each year, the fires grow bigger, more destructive, and are sustained over fire seasons that start earlier and run later.

Falk is working with other scientists to outline risks and ways to limit those risks from becoming a devastating reality for people who live in forest and wildland communities.

“You don’t have forests without fire,” Falk said. “You can’t understand forests at all without understanding fire.”

The ladder that Crown King saloon owner Lorrie Wyatt has at the ready on the restaurant’s back patio. The first item in the bar that Wyatt would grab with the ladder is an antique pool light that’s been hanging ever since she was a kid. Credit: Griffin W. Riley

Residents like Lorrie describe life on the mountain as being always ready to leave. Every summer, the township starts packing “go-bags” filled with medical prescriptions, family photos and personal documents. Lorrie even plans her business around the possibility of a wildfire sweeping through at any second. 

“We went through and picked certain pictures that we wanted to unscrew from the wall as quick as we could. We have a ladder sitting right here all ready,” she says, motioning toward the saloon’s patio. “That one is there specifically just because we are preparing, so it’ll stay there for the season.” 

The historic Crown King saloon, a hub for community, could be a set for a spaghetti western: complete with wooden construction painted red and white and hefty swinging doors. A stage for the occasional entertainer. Antique photos and tools from the ghost town’s past.

And a single ember could set it all ablaze.

‘This is the hole we’ve dug ourselves into’

Although the reasons for worsening wildfires are many, there appear to be three principle exacerbating factors: 

  • The Southwest began a multidecadal drought in the 2000s, with studies proving it’s the worst drought in over 1,200 years
  • Temperatures are climbing from climate change, creating dry landscapes ready to burn.
  • And human interference that actively starts the fire or creates conditions for fire to thrive. In 2020, people caused more than 80% of Arizona’s fires, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

Read more: Arizona’s 27-year drought. A guide.

Combine those three factors, and you’ll soon find yourself living in an environmental nightmare. 

“You have to live with fire; there’s no keeping it out,” Falk said. “The longer we try to suppress fire and keep it away from us, the worse it’s going to get when it does burn.”

The reality is that wildfires are important to these regions. When a fire ravages through the forest, it burns the waste on the surface, allowing nutrients to find their way back into the soil, creating a refreshed environment for plants and animals. 

The problem, however, is that our eagerness to suppress the fires leads to an accumulation of those surface plants that turn into increasingly flammable fuels, leading to more destructive fires.

“This is the hole we’ve dug ourselves into,” Falk said.

With these compounding issues, Arizona’s parameters for large fires have changed. Before the year 2000, the biggest fires would be anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 acres, Falk said. Now our biggest fires are 200,000 to 500,000 acres.

The New Mexico Gila National Forest is recognized as a U.S. leader in allowing fire to play its natural role in forest lands to the fullest extent possible, with firefighters managing fires in lieu of active suppression. The technique is coupled with prescribed fires to burn vegetation and create barriers to protect communities from a forest fire spreading into town, where homes and other structures become another source to fuel flames.

The 2011 Miller Fire, for example, approached nearly 90,000 acres in the Gila National Forest, however, it’s rarely reported on because it burned at a lower to moderate intensity in areas that had experienced a previous fire. The 2021 Johnson Fire followed a similar path.

Signaling worsening conditions for humans and creatures in the path of wildfire, until this year, blazes in New Mexico often paled in comparison to Arizonan behemoths like the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire that burned just over 450,000 acres and the 2011 Wallow Fire that burned more than 535,000 acres.

Some New Mexico wildfire communities have less development and a sustained history of fire management compared to Arizona, which has decades worth of fire suppression and accumulated fuels that Falk says you can’t easily reverse in a year without a massive fire.

So, what can be done to mitigate dangerous wildfires? Efforts must take multi-layer approaches that include coordinated efforts by community members and local, state and federal fire and government officials, said Molly Hunter, a UA professor with expertise in applied fire science and ecology.

“Forest thinning, prescribed burning, and grazing in certain areas,” said Hunter, counting off wildfire management methods, noting that these tasks are often easily accomplished on public lands. 

Additionally, Hunter describes the growing practice of “Firewise” programs that provide guidelines on how to prepare and better protect your home.

Those actions include keeping your gutters clear of dead leaves and pine needles or moving firewood piles away from your home. Firewise programs use warehouses to scientifically test variables, such as how fire burns the materials your house is made of, to help homeowners and builders make informed decisions.

Resources for reducing fire risks

Despite the understandable fear, or even fatalism, that may beset some vulnerable wildland communities, there are resilience measures, ways for individuals and businesses to be more “firewise.” 

Andrew Hostad, a fire prevention technician with the U.S. Forest Service in Coconino National Forest, offered a number of basic actions the public can take. Foremost is to abide by fire restrictions and practice basic prevention methods.  

• Don’t light campfires when they’re restricted. 

• Don’t toss cigarette butts or shoot off fireworks. 

• Make sure you don’t park hot vehicles in high grass or have chains dragging from trailers that light a spark. 

​​And when fires do come, make sure to:

• Pay attention to evacuation alerts.

• Have a go-bag ready.

Homeowners also have a lot they can do far before a fire threatens their home:

• Don’t let embers get into your attic or basement crawl spaces by closing off gaps with metal mesh or screens.

• Fireproof your soffit and eaves.

• Clean up dead trees, tumbleweed, clear pine needles in gutters.

• Add fire breaks — such as metal segments — to wooden fences that are attached to or close to houses.

• Keep propane tanks and firewood away from the house.

• A short guide also lists multiple other considerations.

• The National Fire Protection Association also has multiple resources and guides.

Hunter said that people who live in areas with regular natural disasters typically have plans and preparations in place should they need to escape quickly, but the broader society doesn’t think about fire in the same way as they do other natural disasters. That’s something she and other fire experts are working to change.

“It’s becoming kind of hard to escape the effects of fire,” she said. “We’re gonna have to be more adaptive and find ways to live with it.”

After the 2018 Camp Fire — which killed 85 people, becoming the deadliest and most destructive fire in the United States in 100 years — wildfire, public health and natural disaster experts called for a national coalition to institute known actions that limit risks and to develop cooperation strategies across local, state and federal levels.

Those actions included using shelter-in-place models that other countries employ, where large community spaces without fuel for fire, such as parking lots, are used in attempts to spare lives when it’s impossible to evacuate everyone.

Change will also take forest officials reassessing the effects of climate change and adapting wildfire and land management policies, including for prescribed fires. 

In June, Moore, the top U.S. Forest Service official, addressed the results of a review into prescribed fires after the New Mexico Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Creek fires when he temporarily halted planned burns. He urged people to read the entire report.

“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered. We know these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires,” wrote Moore in an introduction to the federal review. “Fires are outpacing our models … we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground. We must learn from this event and ensure our decision-making processes, tools, and procedures reflect these changed conditions.”

The review included an analysis of fuel and weather that found the prescribed fires were done according to policies but the fire was set “under much drier conditions than were recognized.”

“Persistent drought, limited overwinter precipitation, less than average snowpack, fine fuel accumulation … all contributed to increasing the risk of fire escape.”

Awareness of weather conditions “in the fire environment were overlooked or misrepresented” and some weather stations were not operating. The prescribed fires were not extinguished “after clear indications of high fire intensity and receptive fuels.”

The separate review Moore ordered in May of prescribed fires and related protocols is expected to conclude in August.

Some wildfire experts and advocates for firefighters’ safety are concerned that stopping planned burns for three months will make for a more dangerous late fire season, as areas that would have been cleared will have overflowing forest fuel for wildfires to rage. Meanwhile, families in New Mexico remain outraged and deeply critical of the Forest Service.

In a July 13 statement, Moore asked for patience. He reinforced his support of prescribed fire.

“A century of scientific data has shown that strategically placed prescribed fire and mechanical treatments are essential to reducing forest fuels,” he wrote. “They change fire behavior and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.”

Moore said more than 90% of prescribed fires are completed outside June, July and August in safer weather conditions. His message included an invitation for the public to email questions and feedback.

“The purpose (of the review) is to ensure you have the resources, tools and support you need to carry out the important work we need to do, and to strengthen public confidence and understanding in our prescribed fire activities,” he wrote. “We must have both to combat the wildfire crisis and better protect communities, critical infrastructure, and amazing landscapes and ecosystems.”

Fire Captain Ian Dougherty stands next to a Crown King Fire Department fire engine. The small but dedicated department constantly sifts through different vegetation and classifies them into four categories that indicate how long they hold moisture before drying out completely: 10-minute fuels, 10-hours, 100-hour, and even 1000-hour fuels. Credit: Griffin W. Riley

The community’s fear will always run high

Ian Dougherty is captain of the Crown King Fire Department. He’s preparing his community and his crew.

“Everything leads to a pretty extensive fire season this year,” he says, standing near his red and yellow fire truck in Crown King.

The 28-year-old is one of four staff members and 16 volunteers who make up the Crown King Fire Department. Dougherty worries his firefighting crew is staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. This fire season is particularly dangerous, given the massive fuel accumulation due to a year of precipitation feeding plant growth, which followed years of sustained drought. 

To prepare, the department has to analyze and predict a wildfire that might not come. They shape their advantages, building defensible spaces just as the “firewise” programs describe, while urging residents to do the same.

“Fire is our job,” Dougherty said in an email outlining firefighters’ work to ease community concerns, limit risks and save lives. “Having a wildland fire in our backyard is an uneasy feeling, but we all have the training and different levels of experience to deal with that type of incident.”

Only a few miles east of Crown King lies the even smaller town Cleator. There are six residents in town on a busy day, and there’s always an array of visitors. 

Along the rural community’s main thoroughfare of Forest Road 259 is a cluttered house that hosts a year-round garage sale. And there’s the Cleator Bar and Yacht Club. Yes, a yacht club in the desert, 50 miles from the nearest body of water. The exterior is strewn with beached boats and jet skis. The interior is stapled with dollar bills from wall to ceiling. 

One of the jet skis that pepper the back patio of Cleator Bar and Yacht Club. Credit: Griffin W. Riley

“How do we prepare for wildfire season? You don’t,” says Bill Fry, one of the bartenders at the yacht club. “Not here anyways.” 

Fry looks like Santa if he traded in his sleigh for a Harley. He’s a 30-year Cleator veteran who has seen his share of close — really close — calls from fires.

He says that when sheriffs come to tell you to leave and you refuse, they take your social security number, so they can later identify your remains.

Bill Fry stands in the merchandise section of Cleator Bar and Yacht Club. Fry has seen many close calls near the small town, however, the winds constantly change in the valley it sits in, which has saved the bar and homeowners numerous times. Credit: Griffin W. Riley

Fry says Crown King is fortunate to have their own fire department that works to clear the forest and can actively respond to calls — a luxury Cleator doesn’t have.

One of the things Fry does have in common with Lorrie and Crown King neighbors, however, is fear of the force of nature.

“It’s fucking scary,” he says. “Your property can always be replaced, you know? Think of all your family, dogs, and everything. You can’t get them out right away or something. That would hurt me the most.”

For Lorrie and others in similar Arizona forest communities, their homes and lives are constantly on the line.

“I guess I would rather see it for myself,” Lorrie says of possibly witnessing her house burn down in a wildfire. “I don’t want to hear it from anyone else. I want to watch it for myself.”

She remembers eyeing the flames rising on the smoke-filled western mountain ridges in the Gladiator Fire.

Ash fell into her hand, and she wondered if she was holding the remnants of her parent’s home.

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Griffin W. Riley is a University of Arizona graduate with a B.A. in Journalism and a B.A. in Political Science. He's a photographer of 10 years with experience across various fields, from sports, to commercial...