Fire on the mountain

Late last summer a wildfire tore through central Arizona, eating up thousands of acres of ponderosa pines. It was one of those catastrophic fires blamed on too much vegetative build-up on the forest floor over the last 100 years or so. Some folks blame the environmentalists for blocking timber harvest plans. Others blame the timber industry for years of bad cutting practices. Still others blame Smokey Bear for suppressing fire at every turn, especially those sparked by nature. I suspect it’s a little of each. My family owns 13 acres of land in the small town of Heber, which was right on the southwestern edge of the fire line. We’d received some reports that our property had been well scorched, but no one in our family had ventured to Heber to see first-hand. So this week, my son and I, on our annual summertime visit to Phoenix (don’t ask), decided to see how our 13 acres, a good chunk of my inheritance, fared in last summer’s fire.

Heber is about 150 miles northeast of Phoenix. To get there you take Highway 87, also known as the “Bee Line Freeway,” to Payson. It is a great drive that lifts you from the cactus-covered desert floor across great valleys and into the pine-draped mountains. The temperature drops about 20 degrees as you gain elevation. Payson is one of those highway towns that cater to folks passing through. That means motels, gas station-minimart combos and fast-food restaurants line the route through town. We passed the McDonald’s, Chili’s, Taco Bell and Burger King and stopped at a place called the Bee Line Cafe for lunch. At 11:30, the place was already doing a brisk business. We opted to sit at the counter, next to a couple of old-timers. I’d picked up a free real-estate guide for the region as we walked into the cafe, just to get an idea of what land was going for and maybe get a handle on what our property was worth. I was encouraged; property in the Heber area was going for $50,000 to $70,000 an acre. Of course, that land probably wasn’t fire-damaged.

As we ordered our lunch from the easily distracted waitress, I started picking up on the conversation of the two guys next to us. The man closest to me warned, “There are a lot of guys just like him running loose in the world.” I assumed he was talking about the recently arrested North Carolina man who apparently doesn’t like Olympic festivities, abortion or gay people. The second guy, the one farther down the counter from me, then guided the conversation to health matters, a popular subject among older folks. I learned his daughter, after a year of illness, had finally been diagnosed with Lyme disease and was now eligible for disability. “What’s that?” the first guy said. “Lyme disease!” the second guy shouted. “Lyme disease!”

At about the time my Bee Line cheeseburger arrived, the two old guys were joined by a third, who sat right next to me. “How you been feeling?” The first two guys asked their newly arrived companion. “Oh Jesus, I was so sick for the last week. I’m still trying to get over it. Some kind of virus,” he said. And upon delivering that information, he was suddenly wracked with a coughing fit. The men started discussing in detail the various illnesses they’d had in recent months. As we ate lunch, we heard about diarrhea, vomiting, chills and aches. As we finished, the conversation turned to politics, and the man with the virus called the Iraqi people “morons” for wanting U.S. forces out of their country. “But,” argued one of the other fellows, “how would you feel if some other country had come here and took over? You’d want them to leave.” Virus man wasn’t swayed. “I don’t care,” he said. “They’re still morons.”

Next week: All is kaput.