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Old Bisbee a special fire protection challenge

Old buildings, narrow streets, wildfire zones nearby
Zac Attack Fire
Posted at 5:02 PM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 20:02:44-04

BISBEE, Ariz. (KGUN) — Thursday night’s Zac Attack fire came close to part of the historic heart of Southern Arizona: Old Bisbee.

Arizona’s wildfire season is effectively all year long now and those wildfires create a special challenge to a place like Old Bisbee.

Copper mining made Bisbee a boomtown before Arizona was even a state. Now its history is its fortune — the heart of its appeal as an interesting place to visit. But those historic buildings are old and dry, connected by tight streets and fringed by natural land that can carry in a wildfire to turn history to ashes.

Built in 1902, the Copper Queen Hotel is the best known building in Old Bisbee. Chris Phelps has been tending bar there for six years. He knows what it’s like when fires come close to Old Bisbee.

“It is a threatening moment," he said. "My house is from 1899. It is single wall construction. There is no insulation in it. It is a tinderbox. And everything is stacked right on top of each other here in this town. It doesn’t take much.”

The special environment of Old Bisbee requires special training and equipment. Bisbee’s Fire Department has both, including custom made fire engines slimmed down a bit to have an easier time squeezing through streets laid out for horses, not trucks.

Bisbee Firefighter Robert Cline says, “A lot of firefighters from other places and states will come to Bisbee and they always ask us, ‘how do you do it and why do you do it in Old Bisbee,’ so that’s kinda of our claim to fame and one of our challenges and we get some of the best firefighters out of it for that reason.”

And modern methods have kept the old town standing — protecting what could never be replaced.