Rafael Fire, Arizona, 2021

The Evolution of Fire Management and the Role of Knowledge

Back in late 2022 I worked with my friend John Schaffer on another one of his land and wildfire video projects, this time on 2021’s Rafael Fire in the Sycamore Canyon area southwest of Flagstaff, Arizona.

This project had a little behind-the-scenes drama on my side of things: one the third or fourth flight my drone decided it wanted to do its own thing, glitched out, and flew off towards Sedona. It was pretty strange: it was very close to me, no obstructions, no wind, no bad weather, miles from any (known) source of radio interference. It just wigged out, sounded like the motors all went into hyperdrive, and took off.

I spent several hours traipsing all around its “last known location”, tried extrapolating fight paths from there, anything I could think of, couldn’t find any trace of it. Maybe it got caught in a vortex or wanted some healing crystals.

So a few months later I had a chance to get a new drone – silver lining, I got to upgrade to a newer model – and got back out into the Sycamore Canyon area to get the footage for John’s video.

Another challenge was the fact that most of Sycamore Canyon is a Wilderness Area, and the drone laws about that are, imho, vague and contradictory. Most official places state it as “you cannot take off from, land in, or operate from” a wilderness area, which implies to me that you could theoretically take off from the edge of a wilderness area, fly over it, and land back outside, without breaking the letter of the law.

But the spirit of the law – and Wilderness Areas – is to try to preserve some land that is as minimally impacted by humans, and a buzzing drone isn’t really what the wildlife evolved to live with, and any visiting hikers didn’t come out to the wilderness to hear the buzz of a huge swarm of electric bees. So I kept out of the Wilderness area and just pointed the camera in that direction.

I hadn’t been in Sycamore Canyon yet, and it was a beautiful area to explore and to camp in. As always with John’s projects, “going to the office” each day was pretty great.