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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty