Chapter 7-Memories of the monster A column by ANDY STATeN

It was a Tuesday when I was first called to the beast. It was Tuesday, June 18, 2002, to be exact.

Greg Tock, publisher of the White Mountain Independent at the time, called me at home to ask if I could go check out a wildfire and take some pictures for the next issue of the newspaper.

He had just received a call from Jo Baeza, longtime Independent reporter who was stationed at the Juniper Ridge Lookout. A few weeks earlier, Baeza had penned reports that forest conditions were so bad, the White Mountains could be facing a catastrophic wildfire.

Tock said that Baeza told him a fire had just started near Cibecue – and added,“This is it.”

I was packing to move when he called. My wife and our three cats were in the middle of moving from Show Low to near Lakeside, and we had to be out of the old place by the end of June.

But this business was just as urgent, so I lit out toward the fire in my car, which I had to fill with gas at the Carrizo store along the way. In my haste, I left my tripod at home and this would be an oversight I would come to regret.

As I turned onto Indian Route 12 toward Cibecue, I guessed that firefighters might be pumping slurry at the Cibecue air tanker base, right alongside the highway, and that might be my best photo opportunity.

Sure enough, several single-engine air tankers were landing there taking on the fire retardant in an attempt slow the fire’s advance. In the background, smoke from the fire, then less than 100 acres at the time, signaled it was headed northeastward.

Next, I drove to the hill on the west side of town to get a perspective of exactly where the fire was burning, then I headed toward the inferno. After I turned onto Rodeo Road, arriving late, I met a line of traffic coming out. Officials had already turned away everyone not in the firefighting effort because it was going to be dark soon. Since the fire was burning in some of the most rugged terrain in eastern Arizona, it was going to be too dangerous to fight the fire at night.

I went on to where the Fort Apache engines were positioned, about a half mile south of the fire, and took as many pictures as I could. We stood for several hours after dark, observing the fire. Rather than “lying down” as temperatures fell and humidity rose, the Rodeo Fire burned intensely atop Cibecue Ridge well after 10 p.m. Without my tripod, I tried to stabilized my camera as best I could, and got some shots of firefighters silhouetted against the flames — blurred as they were.

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"It’s gonna be bad"

I drove back to Show Low to call Tock at his home around midnight for an update, and I said something like, “I didn’t get any good shots of flames, but I have a good shot of the slurry bombers. There will be more flames. It’s going to be bad. The fire is burning out of control and it’s really going to take off tomorrow (high winds and hot temperatures are in the forecast for days to come). We’ll need to send our photographers out first thing Wednesday. After I get this film developed, I’ll have to get my sports pages done ASAP and try to move some more stuff to the new place. We may have to move ourselves.”

As I drove down the Deuce of Clubs toward Kmart on Wednesday morning for film processing, sure enough, the smoke plume looked ominous. It had everyone’s attention.

For the next couple of days, we pushed the next issue through and I concentrated on moving while staying in close contact with my coworkers. As the fire got closer to town, our packing took on a two-fold purpose — moving and/or possibly evacuation.

Everyone’s attention was also focused on the daily press briefings — sometimes morning and afternoon — to get any new information on the fire. Public information officer Jim Paxon gave us the straight scoop — 50 mph winds were driving the fire, making it impossible to fight it from the front. Most of the firefighting effort was on the flanks. With hundreds of square miles of dry forest between the fire and the Mogollon Rim — mostly an uphill run which accelerated the advance of the fire — the outlook was bleak.

Paxon said it was a “worst-case scenario” and explained the extreme fire behavior.

With the heat, high winds and the extremely dry forest, the Rodeo Fire was what is known as a “plume-dominated fire.” That is, as the fire consumed fresh fuel, it sent a towering thunderhead of heat, burning embers, smoke and ash 35,000 feet or more into the air, where it all cooled and condensed, then fell in a mighty downburst, sending flames in all directions. Within minutes, the fire mustered more towering plumes, beginning the next cycle.

In the early days, the fire produced several plume/downburst cycles in a single day. Every hour, 5,000 acres were being consumed during the height of the fire’s intensity. If that wasn’t scary enough, we learned that another fire had started on the Fort Apache Reservation, a dozen or so miles to the west of the Rodeo Fire. By late Thursday, people west of Show Low and in Heber/Overgaard — 40 miles further west — were asked to evacuate.

Panic grew as the fire got closer to Show Low. On Thursday night, my wife and I were delivering a load to our new home. It was about 3:30 a.m. and there was no traffic. Everyone was on evacuation alert and was trying to rest for the next day.

We were on the newly paved Penrod Road and when I topped a hill and glanced toward the west. I came to a stop in the middle of the road.

“What’s wrong?” asked my wife.

“Look,” I said, pointing toward Pinedale Ridge, visible about 15-20 miles to the west.

We looked on, without words, as the fire made a run through the community of Pinedale. We could see about 10 large fires scattered along the ridge. These were the first structures lost to the Rodeo Fire. We learned that 16 houses were lost and 80 were saved that night.

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Evacuation imminent

On Friday, the fire definitely had everyone’s attention. It had jumped numerous containment lines and continued its march up the Rim.

Plumes towered over Show Low, and colors and shapes of all sorts were revealed as the sun tracked through. A WMI reader in Linden took a photo of the smoke, showing the face of a monster on the eastern front.

A furious attempt at backburning was made to keep the fire from heading east toward Show Low. I stopped packing from time to time to go outside and watch the plumes. From my Show Low home, I could see columns of dark smoke (meaning fresh fuel was burning) rising on the eastern flank. This was smoke from the backburns intended to take fuel away from “The Monster.”

The public was briefed on what to take in case of evacuation, which became more likely by the minute. CellularOne gave out cell phones and I got one so I could notify my family that we were OK.

The U.S. Forest Service had a trigger point that would determine if Show Low, Linden, and Pinetop-Lakeside would have to be evacuated. That trigger point was Hop Canyon.

On Saturday morning, we learned that the fire had once again breached containment lines. If the fire got into Hop Canyon, we would all have to leave.

On Saturday afternoon the order came and 20,000 more residents filed out of town. Most were headed to Round Valley and the Dome. Others went to St. Johns, Holbrook, Payson and Phoenix.

I went to the office, packed my computer, and made one more trip to our new place east of Lakeside. For a time, we wondered if the evacuation order meant us as well. On Sunday morning, we took one more shower and headed to Springerville, where The Independent office there would be our new home.

Our cats knew something was not right. I drove the car with our old Maine Coon, Natty, in my lap. My wife drove our pickup with our other two cats, one wailing and one drooling, in a pet carrier.

We arrived at our Springerville office early Sunday and I began to set up my computer. The place was a menagerie of employees, family members and pets of several species.

News of the fire’s intensity, now a complex after the Rodeo Fire merged with the Chediski Fire to the west, was now being spread nationally and internationally. TV news reported “400-foot flame heights,” and that a “50-mile wide wall of flames” threatened the area. Back home in Mississippi, a church congregation prayed for “Show Low, where Andy Staten now lives.”

Appetite for news replaces panic

Later on Sunday, I did my sports pages for the next Tuesday issue with Natty still in my lap, taking it all in stride.

My family was to be staying with a friend in Luna, N.M. Larisa Bogardus, our Apache County Editor then, offered her home for our cats to stay while we ate dinner.

It was at Booga Reds’ Restaurant, after I placed my order, that my guts finally let go of the stress. Finally, I felt I had done all I could do. I nearly wept before consuming a meal of liver and onions — real comfort food.

Then it was on to Luna, which was out of the smoke. Our friend had a pump house for the cats to stay in. She had three watchdogs that followed me out every time I went to feed the cats. As they stood at the door, the dogs all seemed to ask, “Are they for me?”

With my sports beat no longer important, I felt a bit lost amid the newsroom chaos. I took the animal beat during evacuation. Birds and mammals of many species, both wild and domestic, sought relief from the fire. The United States Humane Society had a big rig stationed in Eagar with veterinarians, pet carriers and other supplies and services should anyone be in need. The Round Valley Rodeo Grounds accommodated a good number of horses and other livestock.

In St. Johns, the Apache County Fairgrounds offered even more of a home away from home. Horses, cows, goats, llamas — you name it — found ample food, water, shelter and love.

While we were evacuated, we awaited any scrap of new information on the fire. We also heard lots of rumors.

When I was at the fairgrounds, I was talking to a welder from Lakeside who asked me, “Did you hear about the revolt?”

After I said “no,” he explained that a BIA firefighter and “a few other firefighters from the mountain” had “commandeered” some heavy equipment and cut a fire line on the eastern flank during the night. This wasn’t part of the plan.

I reported this to the newspaper staff and in the coming days we would learn more about that revolt.

We also heard that fire had swept through Timberland Acres west of Linden. Tock and one of our ad representatives, Steve Taylor — better known for his Western paintings — lived in Timberland Acres. Some 98 homes in Timberland Acres were burned by sundown on Saturday, including those of two Show Low police officers and two Linden firefighters, all of whom were on duty. By this time, the fire had burned nearly a quarter million acres and had consumed 260 homes and other structures.

Tom Schafer was our embedded photographer in the fire area. When he brought his film over, everyone wanted news — what had burned and what hadn’t? Through second-hand information, Schafer thought that Taylor’s house had burned. Taylor, who left behind a wealth of paintings, tried to keep it together.

“It’s just pigment on paper,” he said, trying to downplay the loss.

The Rodeo and Chediski fires had officially merged on Sunday, June 23, 2002, hours after The Monster tore through parts of Heber/Overgaard.

Still here

We got a positive update when Anthony Cooley returned after delivering papers to the fire area on Tuesday.

“Show Low is still there. There’s lots of smoke, but no fire,” he said.

While there were rumors, there were many good deeds performed by folks I consider heroes.

Apache County ranchers hitched up their livestock trailers and drove into the fire area in an attempt to rescue animals. And even if they went back home empty, they did it all over again the next day and asked nothing in return.

Round Valley residents opened their homes to the evacuees. Some homeowners told people camping in a parking lot that they would leave their back door open in case anyone wanted to go take a shower.

I was touched. White Mountain folks showed the same type of grit and generosity as those back in my native Mississippi. It made me proud that I moved to Arizona.

Western Drug filled our prescriptions and the US Postal Service began to deliver Show Low-area mail to Springerville. President George W. Bush visited Springerville on Tuesday to reassure us.

My wife and I passed Tuesday afternoon by delivering newspapers to Alpine. I considered us to be very lucky. I was still able to work and receive a paycheck. And in Alpine, there was a candy store with fudge. More comfort food.

The next day, my wife rode to Gallup, N.M., with Deb Tock to get film developed. We heard news that firefighters had finally achieved some degree of containment on the Rodeo-Chediski Complex. For evacuees, nerves were beginning to wear thin, and parks and recreation personnel from different municipalities wanted to help. I heard some scuttlebutt that there would be an evacuee softball game on Saturday.

Later in the week, we heard more good news on fire containment. Winds had slacked off. Steve Taylor’s home didn’t burn. We might be going home soon.

On Saturday, June 27, the evacuation order was lifted. The softball game was forgotten and we all raced home to a warm welcome.

We learned the largest fire in Arizona history (at the time) destroyed 491 structures and cost an estimated $26 million in property damage. It scorched nearly a half million acres. In the 20 days before full containment, nearly 5,000 firefighters worked 14-hour shifts during the peak of the firefighting effort.

We learned the Rodeo Fire was set by a part-time firefighter looking for work, and that the Chediski Fire was started by a lost motorist in a desperate attempt to signal a TV helicopter from Phoenix flying up to cover the Rodeo Fire. To most of us, it really didn’t matter at that point.

We learned that BIA fuels specialist Rick Lupe led that last-ditch effort to cut a fire line near Hop Canyon. When it was all over, that line was the one that held and basically saved Show Low, Linden and Pinetop-Lakeside. He is the hero of the firefighting effort, although there are really thousands of heroes.

But we would mourn Lupe’s passing on what was to be the one-year anniversary of the start of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. Lupe was badly burned while administering a prescribed burn on Sawtooth Mountain, west of Whiteriver, in May 2003. He died nearly a month later.

After Rodeo-Chediski, we learned what it takes to be good stewards of the forest and what caused such a catastrophe. We learned lifelong lessons about being prepared, the good in people, and what can happen in a worst-case scenario.

Most of all, we learned to be thankful we live in such a still-beautiful place.

Spark by Pia Wyer & Jordan Glenn

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