Wildfires decimate Apache lands

Gail K Pechuli
6/28/02

Cibeque, Ariz. ? The largest wildfire in Arizona's history, a huge natural disaster that has no intentions of stopping soon, is threatening the future economic resources and development of the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

"It's devastating to witness beautiful, happy trees, and livestock, gone forever," said Tribal Chairman Dallas Massey, Sr. "We've lost valuable resources that are important to us."

The "Rodeo-Chediski" fires are snuffing out the Tribe's means of generating profits for its people's livelihood ? timber operations, fishing and hunting permits, casino revenues and recreational earnings.

Huge losses of prime mixed timber may amount to millions in earnings, obliterated in one week's lethal activity, estimated Jim Pitts, the tribe's Resource Coordinator.

"There is about 80 percent loss of the land burned, which means the next two generations (of tribal members) will feel this affect," sighed Pitts. He put to rest the hope that both fires might have moved in a checkerboard pattern, which would have brought less damage. Timber reduced to ashes or unsalvageable conditions include tall-standing ponderosa pine, mixed conifers of Douglas and white fir. Black remains where harmony once existed.

"This entire land is like a house to the people, as opposed to the (modern-day) four walls and a roof," said Pitts.

Within the land charred by the "Rodeo-Chediski" wildfires, tribal members no longer will be able to enjoy their favorite northern recreational areas, such as Red Man's Cave or Hop Canyon. Nor will the hunting be the same.

Wildfire destruction of animal habitats has been shown by science to disrupt nature's cycle to regenerate. It sometimes completely eliminates species of animals within the area.

There have been numerous sightings of wildlife fleeing the fire to seek shelter on unharmed soil. Once outside their habitat, wildlife like birds, turkeys, spotted owls, fish, elk and deer became confused and frightened. They momentarily stop to stare at the humans also evacuating, then dart away, maybe forever.

The White Mountain Apache recreational areas are a major source of income, through hunting and fishing permits issued to outsiders and tribal members.

The tribe is also suffering from the shutdown of Hondah Casino resort on June 23, interrupting the revenue flow at the high peak season of summer tourism. The "Rodeo-Chediski" has made several runs toward the casino. Tribal members, as well as non-Indians employed by the casino are without jobs and waiting out the fire.

Tribal sustenance from the land has been devastated, especially in its timber operations. The Cibeque sawmill, a part of the Fort Apache Timber Company (FATCO), has been hard hit and possible lay-offs of 30 to 45 tribal members who work there have been rumored. Such layoffs would affect about half the community.

Cibeque councilman Jacob Henry said, however, that is not on the table right now. "I haven't heard anything of a shutdown yet, but we (tribal council) haven't officially met," he said in a telephone interview with Indian Country Today. "Right now the whole (Cibeque) community needs to be supported. There are a lot of good people out here."

"Right now, we need their prayers for the people of the tribe, our neighbors to the north and for the firefighters," said councilman Henry. Officially, the tribe has not asked for any support other than federal aid, but may do so later.

A complete assessment of the fire's damage will not be released until firefighters have made further attempts to extinguish the blaze and specialists can accurately provide detailed reports for the tribal council. But damage reports are rolling in from one of the most terrifying wildfires ever seen in the country.

"There's nobody alive today who's ever witnessed this before," said Pitts about the ferocity of the fire and combined elements. "The fuel was in an unnatural state."

Beyond the devastation, the tribe is suffering from accusations that it calls unfair. Some critics have charged that its forest management allowed an excessive accumulation of fuel that is now feeding the conflagration. But in the months leading up to the "Rodeo-Chediski" wildfires, BIA Fire Management and Tribal Forestry officials combined forces to remedy the forest's health through prescribed burns and logging. But environmentalist questions about the legality and thinking behind prescribed fire brought politics into the equation and halted burning operations.

Residents to the north in towns like Show Low complained about the invading smoke and halted the prescribed burns.

The other hot topic surrounding the Rodeo wildfire is the investigation into its ignition. BIA Law Enforcement has reported no arrests but it has requested the Phoenix Silent Witness program to establish an outlet for anonymous callers to provide leads in this case.

Councilman Henry commented on reports that tribal members had received negative verbal comments from emotional evacuees to the north. "There are fingers being pointed at this community (about the start of the fire)," he said. "Even the whole tribe is somewhat being blamed. However, we are all in this together. We need to join hands and walk towards the road of recovery together."

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