29 Jan 2008, 7:01pm
People and Fire
by admin

The Monster Reared His Ugly Head

Paxon, Jim. The Monster Reared His Ugly Head: The Story of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire and Fire As a Tool of Nature. 2007. Cedar Hill Publishing [here]

Short review by Mike Dubrasich, with Excerpts

Jim “the fire guy” Paxon was the Information Officer on the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. In 2002 that fire consumed 470, 000 acres and was largest and most expensive fire in the recorded history of Arizona.

In The Monster Reared His Ugly Head Paxon recounts the day by story of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire with the polished prose of a pro IO, but in very unbureaucratic personal terms. He begins the story with a description of the forest and his personal experience, knowledge, and relationship to it.

This sets the appropriate stage, because the fire was personal to a great many people. What burned down was not wildlands but homelands.

Paxon tells of the Ancient Ones and their fires. The early inhabitants of the Mongollan Rim were agriculturalists and apartment dwellers, builders of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. The Apaches came later to the White Mountains, but Like the Ancient Ones, the Apaches wielded anthropogenic fire, regular seasonal fires that encouraged nuts, berries, forage for game, and safety from catastrophic fires.

Times have changed, and in the absence of anthropogenic fire and human tending of the landscape, inordinate amounts of fuels built up, until finally the landscape exploded into the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

The photographs are stunning. The stories of the some the individuals involved are more stunning yet, and poignant. Paxon is a firefighter, which adds and subtracts. I liked his stories of non-firefighters the best, but his experience at firefighting underpins the entire work.

Paxon derives something of a moral from the fire, or as firefighters like to say, lessons learned.

Restoration ecology requires that our tools of thinning, pruning, chopping, timber/fuel-wood harvesting and, of course, prescribed burning be used as each situation dictates. The notion of allowing free burning fire without major modifications to existing fuel situations is sheer folly, and will lead to greater disasters than we have suffed so far… and most certainly fatalities of both firefighters and civilians (remember Los Alamos, May 2000, and the prescribed fire that got away). Yet, prescribed fire must be in the mix of tools used by land managers. We must periodically put fire on the ground in a controlled way… or Mother Nature will reduce fuels the same way she did on the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

Excerpt from Chapter 6


…The White Mountains are unusual in that the makeup of the communities demonstrates wide ethnic diversity, excellent community cooperation and neighborly co-existence. Fire season 2002 would see many players in the upcoming battles, some who were unlikely and unwilling participants in a drama that would be played out before the world. One such player in this unscripted drama is Leonard Gregg, a White Mountain Apache. He was born in 1971 in Whiteriver and was given up for adoption shortly after birth. Leonard was very likely born with “F.A.S.” (fetal alcohol syndrome), a condition caused by a pregnant mother’s use of alcohol, which damages the brain and limits cognitive skills and reasoning in her unborn baby. Leonard struggled through the 9th grade, when he dropped out of school. He depended very much on his step-mother and step-brother, Wilson to help him with direction and simple decisions.

Leonard was known as a shy, gentle soul-not a trouble maker. However even as a child, he was known to have a fascination with fire. On the morning of June 18, 2002, Leonard was reported to have had an argument with his step-mother and stormed out of their house in Cibeque, a small logging community on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The sawmill in Cibeque was the major industry in the area. Most of the residents were involved in either logging or working at the sawmill that produced lumber.

Leonard was unable to keep a steady job, but he had advanced through the basic firefighter training the Bureau of Indian Affairs Forestry and Fire staff put on each year. Leonard and many others who have been trained, have passed the physical fitness test, were then issued personal protective equipment and packs and could be called up and put to work whenever fire conditions were severe. At times crews were organized and sent out of their home area to fight large fires that require extensive people-power to dig fire lines, mop-up and do other “non-hotline” fire duties, as well as do fire rehabilitation work. This is the only way that Leonard had to make money and he was broke. Leonard needed money to support his girlfriend and her five children. Sadly, those afflicted with F.A.S. often do things in reaction or on impulse, without considering long term effects or the bigger picture. They may have an idea of right or wrong, but any decisions made by them are limited in scope and understanding. They exhibit naïve ways and often seek resolution of their issues in immediate, graphic action. Such it was for Leonard on June 18th. The results of his actions impacted the residents on the reservation and in the high country above the Mogollon Rim,…for the next several generations!

The first fire allegedly lit in anger by Leonard Gregg was named the Pina Fire, within the village limits of Cibeque, next to Cibeque Creek. Structural firefighters and two forestry engines from Ft. Apache Fire responded to this blaze at approximately 10:30 a.m. Ft. Apache Fire Helicopter, H-355 also made water drops to help the firefighters on the ground. A structural engine from Cibeque also responded, since the fire was in the community. Firefighters were able to contain the Pina Fire at 10 acres and the two Forestry engines mopped the Pina Fire up, totally extinguishing any burning materials, while the structural engines and firemen returned to their station, by about 3:00 p.m. It was only providence that the first fire was lit near the creek, which ran water and there was some “green!” The Pina Fire was stopped before it could do real damage to the town of Cibeque and the surrounding forests.

At approximately 4:11 p.m., Cibeque fireman Gary Thompson looked out the window of the fire station and saw a definite smoke plume to the north. The only development in that direction was the Cibeque Rodeo Grounds. Gary called Ft. Apache dispatch to report the fire. B.I.A. policy restricts structural firefighters from leaving their district of responsibility, in this case, the community of Cibeque. Their responsibility, equipment and training is for structure protection,…not wildland firefighting. The large fire engine that they drive would not have easily maneuvered up to the rodeo grounds.

At about the same time, Chediski Lookout also spotted the plume of smoke and called in the location to Ft. Apache dispatch. Shortly after, Limestone Lookout confirmed the smoke and gave an azimuth (compass reading) to cross reference the location. With two lookouts giving compass bearings, the location could be plotted (triangulated on a map) to a point of the closest 10 acres. Since the fire was plotted near the Cibeque Rodeo Grounds, it was named the “Rodeo Fire.”

Before the fire was reported, Leonard Gregg had told a neighbor that he was soon to be called to a fire and he needed to get ready for the call to go and help fight it. Leonard was one of the first “casual firefighters” to be called up and put to work.

With just one match, the dragon opened one eye and yawned. Before fire fighters could get to the Cibeque Rodeo Grounds, the dragon was fully awake, in a rather bad mood at being deprived exercise for so many decades and he was ravenously hungry. He took a deep breath and exhaled fire and fury. It was now his time and he would be in control. This was a fire as had not been seen on the reservation, in its entire 133 year history.

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