Arizona conflagrations merge into 'beast'

Gail K Pechuli
6/30/02

Cibeque, Ariz. ? As the "Rodeo-Chediski" wildfires continue to ravage Apache lands in northeast Arizona, dedicated firefighting crews, predominately American Indian, appear to have saved the town of Show Low.

Four of the nation's 13 Type 1 Incident Teams are dedicated to containing the conflagration. The White Mountain Apache Tribe, which is taking the economic brunt of the fire, has provided its Hondah Casino and resort hotel as a command center and housing for outside crews.

The "Rodeo" Fire began on June 18, near rodeo grounds four miles north of Cibeque, Ariz., on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Reportedly, this fire was carelessly ignited. It then erupted into a massive wind-driven wildfire heading north by northeast.

Emergency Firefighters (EFF) crews were dispatched from the BIA Fire Management Office in Fort Apache. These Type 2 crews were the first to respond, but little could be done as the Rodeo fire quickly whipped and thrashed about, pushed by the blowing winds and fueled by dry, dense forest.

Initial Attack (IA) by the Fort Apache crews, consisting mostly of tribal members from the reservation, pulled back for safety reasons. The northeast winds gusted up to 30-40 mph that day, breathing new life into the "Rodeo" fire and carrying its path of destruction from 600 acres to 48,000 acres in one burning period.

The rightfully named "Rodeo" fire possessed a demonic nature, tossing and kicking about hot embers and flames, similar to a bull-riding event. And like a bull rider, firefighters were attempting to stay on top, but it was evident the fire was generating its own life.

The fire crowned trees and rapidly spread. The moisture and heat elements began creating plume clouds as high as 30,000 feet in the air. These plumatic effects could be seen from 75 miles away in Phoenix.

These multiple plume clouds then would suddenly collapse, pushing air in all directions and exploding fireballs.

Firefighters recognized the "Rodeo" fire's reckless behavior and immediately dispatched a Type 1 Incident Management Team to preside over operations.

A Type 1 Incident team consists of representatives from federal, state and other organizations throughout the Southwest area. The command and general staff are specialized in their fields of expertise and dedicated to preserving land and resources and ultimately, protecting life. Incident teams establish and maintain close contact with local agencies, state officials, residents, media and honorary delegates regarding the Incident's activity. These Type 1 teams are called in to handle the complexities in coordinating multi-agency and local resources in battling a wildfire.

While firefighting efforts were being directed to the "Rodeo" fire another smoke billow was sighted 18 miles to the upper west of Cibeque.

On June 20, a non-Indian woman in a delirious state from being stranded for three days ignited a signal fire to gain the attention of a KPHO-TV News helicopter covering the Rodeo Fire.

The news helicopter spotted the woman and whisked her a hospital in Show Low, Ariz. But once the fire started, the unqualified TV crew or the woman did not have the expertise to extinguish the flames crowning on nearby trees.

Named for the nearby mountain ranges, the "Chediski" fire, an Apache term for white rock, twisted slowly through the rocky terrain, burning and fiercely gaining ground.

Again, the BIA Fire Management dispatched its own fire crews.

The crews attacked the growing blaze aggressively, making a valiant dash to dig a hand line around the then tiny fire. Then the winds began to howl. The line was lost, leaving firefighters to bear witness to Mother Nature's flipside of ugliness. The blaze continued to roar through, making unusual runs in the evening hours.

"Chediski" also displayed erratic fire behavior like the "Rodeo" fire. Most flames somewhat lie steady at night when winds calm and temperatures drop, but "Chediski" had a mind of its own. It became a general, planning an attack on the fine forest timber that lay ahead. Firefighters regrouped in an attempt to defend against it. "Chediski" prevailed.

A Type 2 Incident Management Team was instantly assigned to command. A Type 2 team functions like a Type 1 team, but without the interagency complexities of coordinating national resources. It is efficient and effective on smaller-acreage fires.

As the Type 2 team continued to observe extreme fire behavior, it concluded that a Type 1 team would better assume the escalating fire situation at Chediski. Within 48 hours, the transition was completed.

The fast-moving "Chediski" fire began making jumps and leaps, using all natural elements of mixed fuels, wind and topographic terrain to devour anything in its path including tribal timber, homes, cultural resources, archeological sites and livestock.

Fire crews began using fire against "Chediski" with "burnout" strategies that eliminate fuels. They tried to protect precious elements such as the Arizona Power Service (APS) powerline to the west, a cultural resource to the east at Pumpkin Lake, and summer cabins and homes that lay to the north.

Fire crews on the "Rodeo" fire were tiredly reinforcing their fire line just one fifth of a mile outside of Show Low by bulldozing existing lines, conducting burnouts and dropping retardant in attempts to slow down the hot fire. The "Rodeo" fire was shooting embers at least three miles ahead of its path. To intercept these hot embers, local structural firefighters stayed within Show Low city limits to stomp out spot fires or embers that fell onto houses.

On June 24, structural firefighters began flagging each house to distinguish homes that could be saved from the homes that have high-risk urban interface fire danger. Homes whose surrounding trees and shrubs created a fire hazard would not be saved.

All communities have been evacuated into shelters provided by Red Cross at each town's high school.

Due to the intensity of the "Rodeo-Chediski" fire behavior, the Incident Teams have placed firefighters at least one to two miles on the side flanks of the fire. Firefighters are working at night to conduct burnouts in order to gain the upper hand.

At press time, it was not known when the "Rodeo-Chediski" fires would come under human control or when Mother Nature would subside.

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