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Chapter 1- "The Catastrophe we created" by Peter aleshire

We spent a century creating the catastrophe.

We rushed into a wild country where fires had burned for 10,000 years and changed everything. Our cattle ate the grass that once carried frequent, low intensity fires. Our loggers cleared away the giant, fire-resistant trees that shaded the forest floor and the jostling saplings. Our Forest Service devoted itself for a century to putting out every fire within the first 24 hours.

So we all but halted major forest fires for nearly a century.

Now comes the reckoning. Nature has consumed our hubris like dry pine needles. This six-month series of stories created jointly by the Payson Roundup and the White Mountain Independent offers the story of our carefully constructed catastrophe: its roots, its toll, its terrible implications. Through decades of miscalculation and short-sightedness, we built a trap for every forested community, every downstream city, every acre of forested land. And through 30 years of denial, we’ve failed to take the steps made necessary by our self-created catastrophe.

But the series details not only our failures – but our triumphs. It details the extraordinary courage of firefighters, the insights of researchers, the compassion of our communities. Brave voices facing the firestorm have sought and found solutions. So in the end, this series will focus on those solutions – set against the backdrop of our remarkable refusal so far to take even the obvious steps.

It’s long past time for the voters, the public officials and the Forest Service to implement those solutions in the war footing the crisis demands – and long past time for this series.

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We should have understood everything when, in 1992, the Dude Fire burned 24,000 acres, killed six firefighters and taught horrified fire commanders that a wildfire can create its own weather. The fire in the hottest, driest month of the year on the face of the Mogollon Rim built a pillar of flame and smoke 30,000 feet high. When the top of that column froze in the high, cold air, the pillar collapsed – blowtorching flames 1,000 feet in every direction. The flames rushed down the canyon faster than an Olympic sprinter could run and incinerated a crew of firefighters clinging desperately to their frail fire shelters against the hurricane winds.

Back then, the Dude Fire’s 24,000 acres ranked as the largest fire in recorded history. Imagine that: 24,000 – the worst fire ever. Now, 20 years later – it’s not in the top 10, save for the loss of life.

We reacted to the Dude Fire as though it was a fluke – a freak of the heat and the drought and the weather.

But it wasn’t a fluke. It was a portent.

The Dude Fire ushered in the age of disaster in the abused and deformed forests of northern Arizona. Firefighters learned harsh lessons from the tragedy, although we have lost firefighters repeatedly since then – including 19 in the needless Yarnell Fire disaster. Firefighting strategy and scale have changed dramatically, with the federal government now spending nearly $4 billion annually to deploy thousands of firefighters with military organization and precision.

Unfortunately, the rest of us learned very little, making the courage and expertise of those firefighters increasingly futile.

We continued building our homes in the thick, unhealthy forests. We allowed the timber industry to stagger, struggle and die. We roofed our houses with shake shingles. We spent almost nothing on forest thinning and restoration. We let thickets of brush and trees grow thick in our neighborhoods and against the sides of our houses. We built subdivisions with no back-door escape route. We rebuilt even the subdivisions the wildfires consumed – with no change in the building codes. We filled the woods with campers, who left untended campfires by the hundreds and the thousands. The forests grew thicker. The droughts grew longer. The temperatures rose.

Then came June 18, 2002, and the Rodeo Chediski – the most glaring possible rebuke to our willful foolishness.

Just 10 years after the Dude Fire should have taught us something, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire made the lesson terrible and unmistakable.

An unemployed White Mountain Apache firefighter named Leonard Gregg lit a match and set a patch of grass on fire near the Rodeo Fairgrounds in Cibecue. That started the Rodeo Fire. A few days later, a woman found herself lost, out of gas and full of fear after making a series of mistakes that included driving around a fire barrier on a forest road. She lit a small fire on a cleared, rocky space, desperately trying to attract the attention of a passing helicopter. The helicopter rescued her, but her signal fire – in a swirl of wind – set the Chediski Fire.

It's easy enough to blame the firefighter with the match or the lost hiker, but in truth, the fire was inevitable – and so it the next one. It could have been a flash of lightning, the hot muffler of an off road vehicle, the embers of a carelessly abandoned campfire, a cigarette flicked from a car window.

The spark was inevitable after a century of mismanagement – not just of the forest, but of the buildings we plunked down in the forest.

Gregg was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which left him forever unable to see into the murky future created by his actions. But in this he resembled a century of foresters and planning commissions, and elected boards of supervisors.

Vallinda Jo Elliott acted recklessly. Without understanding the forest, she put her immediate interests ahead of the greater good. But we have done no less for decades at a time. The Forest Service once let loggers lop off the tops of small trees and leave them piled on the ground – tons of debris on every acre of ground. Foresters reasoned the chopped trees would rot and fertilize larger trees for loggers. Instead, they provided the fuel for a holocaust of fire.

So here’s what the Rodeo Chediski Fire showed us beyond the inevitability of the match, the signal fire, the fatal spark.

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The fire started in the worst possible conditions. Fuel moistures dipped below 3 percent. The temperature climbed toward 100 degrees. Winds blew a steady 25 mph. The forest was tinder dry, in the long, fierce grip of drought. The monsoon lay weeks in the future. The entire West sizzled and simmered. The fire season in 2002 proved the worst in 100 years, with fires consuming 6.4 million acres. The federal government spent a then-unheard-of $1 billion fighting them. In that one year, 22 firefighters died facing the flames.

The inevitable fire proved unstoppable. The Forest Service fire lookouts spotted the smoke immediately. Hand crews and engine crews from Fort Apache Fire and Forestry rushed to the scene. Air tankers dumped water and flame retardant on the fire within minutes.

It didn’t matter.

The fire leaped ahead of the firefighters, with dry brush, grass and trees exploding into flames. During one 30-minute period in the early stages of the fire, it grew from 25,000 acres to 55,000 acres.

Astonished firefighters reported seeing 100-foot-tall pine trees burst into flame, well in advance of the fire front. For 30 minutes at a time, the fire front advanced at 60 mph. For sustained periods, the fire grew by 5,600 acres per hour – roughly 100 acres a minute or 9 square miles an hour. No army of firefighters or bombers could slow it, much less stop it. Putting a crew in front of that racing wall of flames would have been manslaughter.

The fire developed a whole series of plumes like the one that collapsed with such terrible effect in the Dude Fire. The plumes rose to 40,000 feet, collapsed and blasted fire in every direction. Then they formed again and repeated the process. A collapsing plume could advance the fire line by five miles in 15 minutes. It could also drop softball-sized embers on forests and rooftops a mile from the flame front.

Firefighters reported flame lengths of 1,500 feet – making full-sized ponderosa pines look like weeds against the pillar of fire.

The fire consumed 465 homes, six businesses, 23 garages and outbuildings – in part because it simply outran firefighters and roared through several small, forested, poorly prepared communities before they had a chance to create buffer zones and start backfires – the only way to slow or divert the spread of the flames. Those communities might have survived had they met Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) building codes when it came to building materials, overhanging eves, fire-proof roofs and porches. Those communities might have survived with cleared buffer zones and "fire wise" brush clearing through the neighborhoods.

Instead, the flames reached the slumbering, unprepared communities long before the firefighters could make a stand against the racing flames.

Nearly 5,000 firefighters supported by a fleet of bombers and helicopters, and an armored division of bulldozers and firetrucks, fought the fire for more than two weeks, as it grew to 465,000 acres.

Only a heroically executed, last-ditch backfire denied the monster the fuel it needed to roar right on through the evacuated city of Show Low. Tragically, the White Mountain Apache fire crew chief who played the lead role in that last stand would die a year later in a controlled burn, still laboring to protect the community he loved.

So here’s the story of the Rodeo Chediski Fire – the opening to our six months of coverage.

In future installments, we’ll look at how we set the stage for catastrophe, the revolution in firefighting strategies we have developed, the failure of forested communities to prepare, the effort to fashion a new approach to forest management, the role industry has to play in recreating a healthy, fire-adapted forest and the solutions we must pursue locally, regionally and nationally to prevent the otherwise inevitable catastrophe.

We’ve denied the problem, buried our heads, ignored the lessons for 30 years here in Rim Country and in the White Mountains.

We’re out of time.

We must finally learn the lesson of the Rodeo-Chediski and all the other fires of the past 30 years now or fires will surely consume everything we’ve built.

Spark by Pia Wyer & Jordan Glenn

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