Slotted for controversy: The fire in Illusions Canyon

Even in the long days of summer, the heart of Illusions Canyon is dark, cold and wet.

The deep and narrow slot canyon feeds into the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon. Its beautiful red rock colors are painted with lush hues of green from moss and ferns.

And in a federally designated wilderness area brimming with tourism and all manner of recreation, Illusions Canyon is made more incredible because it was only recently discovered. It’s known to canyoneers as “the best canyon in Arizona” — a bold title to give any tributary in the Grand Canyon State.

So when photos started circling this fall of fires intentionally lit in Illusions Canyon, anger erupted with the private company that set the bonfires in a rescue training exercise.

Now the owner of Sedona-based Ropes That Rescue, Reed Thorne, is facing federal charges for operating without a permit and starting the fires, according to his attorney. Ropes That Rescue says they were testing an idea for extracting injured canyoneers — using smoke to triangulate positions in the pristine slot canyon with lasers. But canyoneers and rescue professionals, including one agency that paid for the course, say the technique is not viable.

“We didn’t know about the smoke (in advance),” said Coconino County Search and Rescue Coordinator Aaron Dick. “Never say never, but my impression of the technique is that it’s something we wouldn’t use.”

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