Firefighters douse a hot spot west of Cibecue.
Firefighters douse a hot spot west of Cibecue.
John Dougherty

Smoke Signal

WHITERIVER — The Rodeo-Chediski fire has inflicted a blow upon the White Mountain Apache more powerful than death itself.

The well-documented losses of homes and businesses suffered by the off-reservation communities strung across the edge of the Mogollon rim has been terrible. But the impact to the White Mountain Apache plunges far deeper.

About 45 percent of the 465,000 acres engulfed by the fire were on the Fort Apache Reservation where the White Mountain Apache make their home.

The devastation to the 13,000 tribal members from the fire can't be measured in dollars.

The loss can't be tallied in the number of homes consumed and businesses wrecked.

The forest is the Apache's living room, and now much of it lies destroyed.

Many tribal members rely heavily on the forest to supply food, medicines, building materials, recreation and sanctuary. The Apache's most sacred lake now is surrounded by a forest charred by a fire so hot that the soil is sterilized.

"We haven't experienced a fire of this magnitude, never," says White Mountain Apache Tribal Chairman Dallas Massey Jr.

And now they have the worst news of all.

The Rodeo fire was started by one of their own — 29-year-old Leonard Gregg of Cibecue. Gregg, a contract firefighter with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has admitted to starting the fire in order to be paid to help put it out.

"It's a very sad day," says 51-year-old Massey, who was elected to his second four-year term in April by a narrow six-vote margin.

Gregg has been charged with two counts of setting fire to timber, underbrush, grass or other flammable material on June 18 near the Cibecue rodeo grounds. He could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined $500,000.

Meanwhile, the woman who started the Chediski fire while trespassing on the Fort Apache Reservation has not been charged — angering tribal members who believe they are being unfairly singled out.

How does the fire affect the Apache?

For at least one Apache elder, the destruction from the fire cuts deeper than the loss of his wife, Massey says.

Massey recites a story he heard earlier in the day about a man whose wife had just died.

The man, Massey says, went back to Cibecue the day before to tell relatives about her death.

"He was feeling bad already because he had lost his wife," Massey says.

But the man told Massey he knew it was her time.

"I could actually understand that, because of her age and her sickness," the man told Massey. "I could understand her death. I can take that.

"But after I had seen the mountains in Cibecue, it really hit me hard because we used to go over there to hunt. We used to go over there to gather berries and nuts, and we used to go on picnics. And there is nothing left. Nothing.

"That hurt me more than the death of my wife, a lot more. Because, you know, for generations it will be gone."

Massey says the fire's major impact on the tribe is a spiritual and cultural one.

"We have a lot of historical sites and a lot of sacred sites on that side of the reservation," he says. "It worries a lot of people."

There is also concern that the fire has destroyed the shrubs and trees that lined creeks flowing from springs deep in canyons.

"The vegetation is so important because it cools all the water down," Massey says.

Cold water is essential for the fish and other aquatic wildlife that live in Cibecue and Carrizo creeks.

"The fish and whatever is in there will not survive in the warm water," he says.

The loss of the land is different from the destruction of a structure that can be rebuilt.

"We lost close to 160 million board feet of timber. But that's secondary," he says. "The land itself is more important. If that is gone, then that's going to be with us forever. Our grandkids, the kids not even born yet, they are not going to see the pine trees."

The fire — which has cost more then $30 million to fight — has inflicted enormous financial damage on a tribe that already suffered from 60 percent unemployment and widespread poverty.

Forestry has long been the mainstay of the tribal economy. Preliminary estimates set the loss of commercial timber from the fire at $237 million.

The Cibecue and Whiteriver sawmills have been idled since the fire began, throwing several hundred people out of work.

The tribe also expects to suffer declines in its recreation and casino businesses.

Over the next two months, the tribe projects it will incur $8.4 million in lost revenue, $1.4 million in forgone wages and $4 million in delayed purchases. More than 1,300 tribal members were forced to leave their homes.

Whiteriver is the largest town on the reservation and home of the tribal government. It features one run-down hotel and a single sit-down restaurant. There's one grocery store — a Bashas' — and a couple of mini-marts in town.

Gangs have sprung up on the rural reservation where the youth face a bleak economic future, unless they manage to graduate from high school and enter college.

The fire, Massey says, is a clear warning that the tribe must diversify its economic base beyond forestry, recreation and casino operations.

During the early part of the 20th century, the tribe relied heavily on ranching. "We thought we would always be ranchers," he says.

That changed in the 1940s, when the sawmills became the centerpiece of the White Mountain Apache economy. With the destruction of a huge swath of its forest, the tribe will be forced to find alternative businesses. The outlook is not encouraging.

For several years the tribe has been seeking to attract light manufacturing, call centers and other non-natural resource-based businesses, with little success.

"It's going to be a challenge to find another industry to replace forestry," says Ruby Altaha, an aide to Massey who heads up the tribe's economic development efforts.

Ultimately, the tribe may have to rely on its natural resources.

Massey says the tribe will reexamine the possibility of developing iron reserves in an area that was devastated by the fire. The underground mine holds the possibility of once again transforming the White Mountain Apache economy.

Federal relief funds are expected to ease the initial economic impact of the fire. Massey became the first White River Apache tribal chairman to meet with a U.S. president when he held a 30-minute meeting with President Bush last week in Springerville.

"He said, What can I do to help?'" Massey says.

Bush, Massey adds, instructed the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make sure the Apache receive assistance.

While the federal assistance will be welcome and will help ease the pain from the fire, the tribe still has to manage what is left of its burned forest, much of which is still too hot to inspect from the ground.

One major impact is expected flooding down Carrizo Creek, which drains much of the area burned by the fire. The tribe has already warned residents in the village of Carrizo to move valuables to high ground and to be prepared to leave the area as soon as monsoon thunderstorms arrive later this month.

Even more worrisome is the fact that the traditional wildfire season on the reservation has not yet begun.

The monsoons typically trigger dry lightning strikes that often ignite forest fires. Firefighters across the reservation are poised to react to lightning-caused fires once the monsoons begin.

Before the fires of the last two weeks engulfed the western half of the 1.6 million-acre reservation, Massey says, the tribe had been most concerned about its spruce forest on Mount Baldy, on the eastern part of the reservation.

The spruce forest is in a federally protected wilderness area that prevents logging and forest treatments. Massey says the trees are reaching the end of their natural lives, and many are infested with insects and are dying.

A lightning strike could trigger another major wildfire that would devastate the eastern half of the reservation.

"If a fire started, it could take down the whole ski area," Massey says, referring to the tribe's Sunrise Ski Resort near McNary.

Massey says he will press the tribal council to take immediate action to harvest timber on Mount Baldy before it is lost to fire — regardless of its wilderness designation.

"We might be violating some land disturbance [law] or something," he says. "I'd rather do that than have the whole thing burn down to ashes and get nothing out of it. Let's do it while we can, and do it safely."

Everyone knew fire would come to the reservation. It was just a question of when and how big.

"It was going to happen by lightning," Massey says. "It was going to happen by something because it was so dry."

The tribe's water gauges showed the rivers and creeks were running at a 60-year low.

"It was prime time to burn," he says.

A couple of miles west of Cibecue, the fire burned down a ridge, stopping near some Apache grave sites.

The fire scorched several burial mounds dating back to the 1870s but left others unscathed.

Amos Thorne Sr., a fire crew leader from the San Carlos Apache Tribe, describes the precautions firefighters took to avoid disturbing the graves while clearing a fence from the area and trimming back branches on nearby trees.

Protecting the grave sites is important to the Apache, who believe that the dead can feel the pain of the fire. Family members were called to the site earlier in the day to inspect the burials.

Thorne has fought fires all over the country. He was among the first to arrive as the Rodeo fire began to quickly accelerate into an uncontrollable conflagration.

The fire defied all rules, Thorne says.

It ran against the wind. It jumped fire breaks and creeks that should have stopped it cold. It ran downhill. It was completely unpredictable.

In its wake it left a treacherous terrain of burned trees, many of which will fall in the slightest breeze, making any excursion into the impacted areas very dangerous.

Thorne says the fire almost caught him three times. On one occasion, his crew managed to escape by following a bulldozer as it cut a line through the forest, with fire closing in on two sides.

He knows he is lucky. He's not alone. No one has been killed or seriously injured in the largest wildfire to sweep the United States in 90 years.

"I've been fighting fires for 25 years, and this is the worst I've ever seen," Thorne says.

The damage to the land and the impact on the White Mountain Apache will last lifetimes, says Massey.

"It's going to take 200 years before we see pine trees standing like we did."


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