SHOW LOW — Rick Lupe, a White Mountain Apache, spent his life in the mountains.
And when the worst wildfire in state history tore through the White Mountains, he led the last stand by hundreds of firefighters that saved Show Low.
The controlled burn stopped the Rodeo Chediski Fire at just under half a million acres. Experts say if the burn he directed hadn’t denied the monster fuel — it would have swept through Show Low and grown to perhaps 1 million acres.
Acclaimed as a hero, he shrugged off the praise.
But a year later, he died a hero’s death. He was directing a controlled burn to help protect the mountains and the communities he loved. He saw something strange in the smoke, hiked to the flank of the fire and discovered the burn had suddenly surged out of control. The fire caught him as he ran back to warn his crew, his fire shelter draped around his shoulders. He died in pain a month later – faith to his crew, his mountains, to the end.
Richard Glenn “Rick” Lupe, a 24-year veteran firefighter with the Bureau of Indian Affairs-Fort Apache Agency, was a Southwest Area Incident Management Team Division supervisor, fuels management specialist supervisor, and a Fort Apache Hotshot whose legacy is saving Show Low and surrounding communities from the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
Lupe was a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and, from early childhood, was destined to be a firefighter.
His late wife, Evey, wrote a tribute to him for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. She said Lupe began his journey as a firefighter camp cook for his father.
Though he attained national fame after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, Evey remembered him as a dedicated husband, father and community member.
The thing that ultimately made Lupe a hero was what he called “just doing his job.”
According to Type I Incident Information Officer Jim Paxon, “The east side of the fire smoke column hovered over Show Low on June 24, with the fire dancing and the only chance to keep the fire out was by staging a burnout.” He noted that normal planning of a good burnout takes four or five months.
Roy Hall was the division supervisor in charge of the line and he and Lupe had begun a 10-mile burnout with the Fort Apache and Heber Hotshot crews. Hall specifically asked Lupe to take charge of the burnout down Arizona Highway 260.
Paxon said Lupe’s 19 years of extensive fire experience, leadership and reputation for safety were key elements in the success of the operation. Lupe also took it personally since the fire started on the reservation and moved on to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and private lands.
The crews working the burnout were the same team that had tried so vigorously to stop the fire at the top of Hop Canyon just two days prior. But the fire moved too fast, behaving in ways no firefighter had ever seen.
“Larry Humphrey, Roy Hall and Lupe had confidence in the crews that we could do it,” Paxon said. “You do not go into a war with a ‘What if?’ or a ‘Will I fail?’”
Paxon said federal safety regulations do not allow a firefighter to work more than 16 hours straight unless it is a crisis that threatens public safety.
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“Wagon Wheel was the most vulnerable and the goal of the burnout was to reach Cottonwood Canyon and cut off the route of the fire into Show Low,” he said. “They could not use heavy air tankers. It took them 21 straight hours to burn 10 miles — three crews and a support team. They carried it all the way to Cottonwood and stopped the fire from coming in to Wagon Wheel.”
Paxon said another burnout to the northwest was going on under the direction of Division Group Supervisor Denny Nelson, which was a hand-and-dozer cut fire line across the bottom of Linden Ridge and Cheney Ranch — and tied directly to Arizona Highway 260.
“This burnout,” Paxon said, “secured the northeast corner of the fire and prevented it from coming around to the north and entering Show Low from Fool Hollow (Lake). It went right by Torreon, where the burnout line was around the houses. They carried that four miles and it took four hours to get to Linden.
“It was a gamble, like Las Vegas odds. The chances of success were miniscule. Had the burnout not been completed, they would have lost 2,000 homes based on fire spreading.”
While there were many heroes who worked to save the White Mountains communities from the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, it was Lupe who became the face of how to stop a major wildfire.
“Rick was such a humble man,” Paxon said. “A few days (after the fire containment), Channel 10 wanted to do a TV interview with Firefighter Rick Lupe, the hero, but the hero did not want to do it. Incident Commander Larry Humphrey twisted his arm.
“When reporters asked him about saving the towns from the fire, Lupe said, ‘We had to stop the fire. I had friends, relatives and neighbors in harm’s way.’”
Paxon said Lupe traveled the country and raised many of the young Hotshots on the crew. He also had the reputation nationwide of being keen on keeping his crews safe.
On May 14, 2003, Lupe was working a prescribed burn at Sawtooth Mountain on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. A strong gust of wind caused a sudden flare-up that entrapped Lupe, preventing him from deploying his shelter. Though he got down on the ground and tried to protect himself, he sustained burns to 40 percent of his body.
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As attested to by Paxon, Lupe’s Apache spirit kicked in and he radioed his team that he had been burned. He walked a half-mile to his team and then another half-mile to the helicopter. He was ultimately airlifted to Maricopa Medical Center’s burn unit in Phoenix. He underwent three successful skin graft surgeries there while remaining in a drug-induced coma for five weeks.