All is kaput

This column continues the gripping drama put forth last week concerning the writer’s adventure to the White Mountains of Arizona to see how his family’s property near the town of Heber survived last June’s forest inferno, which scorched 467,000 acres, making it the largest in the state’s recorded history. The fire was actually two separate burnings, one started by a lost hiker hoping to attract attention and the other by a volunteer firefighter who later blamed his actions on the fact that his parents were alcoholics.

We left the Bee Line Cafe and drove the remaining 50 miles to Heber. Along the way we saw evidence of the fire. In some areas right off the highway, many of the pines had brown needles and blackened trunks. But the big trees looked like they’d survived. We got all the way to Heber, and things still didn’t look too bad. I stopped in at ERA Young Realty & Investment and asked if someone there could help locate our property. I hadn’t been in Heber for 20 years, and nothing looked familiar. Realtor Tracey Young welcomed me and gladly pulled up the information I needed on a computer. I asked about the fire. “Oh it was bad, but we were pretty lucky,” she said while punching commands into the computer. “The only area that really got hit was Buckskin Canyon. Otherwise, we were OK.” The computer told us our property was along Cardinal Lane. I looked at a map on the wall that showed shading over Cardinal Lane, which was off Buckskin Canyon Road. “Oh dear,” said Tracey when she realized where our land was situated. The shading, she explained, indicted where the fire had done the most damage.

I thanked her and drove to Buckskin Canyon Road. As we got closer to Cardinal Lane, things still didn’t look too bad. We passed the high school, the middle school and a few houses, all on the south side of the road. But when we rounded a large rock formation and looked north, we were greeted by a scene of utter devastation. All the color had drained away. Every tree was dead. Skinny black sticks rose from the ground. It was our property. I got out of the car and looked around. I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s Germans in Slaughterhouse Five, who upon surveying the remains of Dresden after the Allied firebombing could only repeat the words: “All is kaput.” I heard some pounding in the near distance, looked around and noticed a house being built on the property next to ours. I walked over and greeted the hefty man inside. He introduced himself as Al Ewbanks, newly elected president of the Buckskin Canyon Neighborhood Association. I told him my family owned the property next to his and waited for a sympathetic response. Instead he turned very serious and said, “You owe us neighborhood dues. If you sell that property, you still have to pay. And those trees. Look at ’em. They are going to fall on somebody, and you’ll get sued!”

Ewbanks, I think, is worried about the aesthetics of the property bordering his. He is subdividing, and our collection of dead trees ruins the view for potential home buyers. I couldn’t help but wonder what the dues were for as I surveyed the blackened hills and the thin dirt road that runs through them. Landscaping? Road maintenance? “Christ Al,” I wanted to say. “It looks like the moon! What are the dues for?” I did tell Al our family might just keep the 13 acres the way they are as a tribute to the great fire of 2002. It would be a preserve, and children from all over the Western United States would come by bus on field trips. I’d dress up like Smokey Bear and hand out little burnt wooden plaques that say, ‘Only you can prevent forest fires." My bear head would include a tiny hidden pump that produced a steady stream of tears running down my furry cheeks. I didn’t tell Al those details. I made them up as I drove away. Later, my sister and I came up with other ideas for our now treeless property: a summer camp for Christian-constitutionalist-militia types; an adult bookstore; an auto-salvage yard; a super-sized Wal-Mart. We are going to make lemonade out of lemons. I can’t wait to get back to Al with our plans.