Gary Holdcroft could see what looked like snow falling in his yard hours after a wildfire ignited 20 miles away on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
If he tried real hard, he could imagine it was the good kind — the kind this area needed desperately that winter and many before it.
The smell was acrid. And the powdery debris would smear black when you’d run your finger along the hood of your truck.
But it was a thin piece of debris floating in that June 18, 2002 that made fear lodge in his throat.
It was a charred, intact oak leaf, carried from the wildfire simmering below the Mogollon Rim — the imposing ridge of Ponderosa Pine forest that separates the high country from the desert.
“I thought, 'Man, this is not good.’ It was hot enough to not only keep that bit of ash intact but to send it 20 some miles into my front yard,” Holdcroft recounted in an interview last week.
It was time to leave.
Evacuation orders were issued the next day for towns just outside Show Low. “And that’s when all hell broke loose.”
Fueled by drought, wind and timber-choked forests, the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the largest in state history, was awesome in its devastation.
The total loss spanned 468,680 acres — a swath larger than metropolitan Los Angeles — and nearly 500 homes and structures. At least 30,000 residents fled from ten mountain communities.
Even today, five years later, the inferno looms large on the minds of residents, wildfire experts, forest managers and firefighters.
Like its unpredictable mosaic of destruction that would spare one home while burning to the ground another, some people have healed while others haven’t.
For some, the psychological damage lingers, anger and pain simmering below the surface.
People are more prepared, if not jumpy, at the site of smoke and the prospect of fire. Lessons have been learned, they say, both on the local and federal level.
Though many were forced to leave, a majority have rebuilt. And much of the forest surrounding those homes is slowly recovering into a more diverse ecosystem.
A FOREST RECOVERS
A snaking Forest Service road south of Overgaard tells the story of a landscape forever altered by fire.
It also reveals a recovering, healthy forest — one that in fact is more diverse than the dark, timber-studded swaths of Ponderosa Pine that burned like matchsticks in Rodeo-Chediski.
To be sure, stadium-sized sections of spindly black pines stand as reminders of the fire, and probably will be there for a few lifetimes.
Still today, about 150,000 acres are closed to overnight camping due to the threat of “widow makers,” or fire-weakened trees officials fear could snap or fall in strong winds.
And those winds, they blow more than ever before. Residents along these Rim communities echo stories about how breezes before the fire have turned into wind gusts after it. The old stands of trees made a good weather break.
“It is downright windy,” said Gayle Richardson, a forester with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Overgaard. “You can definitely feel it.”
But gone are the days of the sound of cornflakes crunching under boot on scorched soil. Gone is the moonscaped, silent woods.
In its place: Grasses, flowering plants, bushes and sprouting trees, such as oak and juniper.
“After the Ponderosa Pine overstory has been removed by fire — as catastrophic as that is — what it did is open up a hugely diverse plant community,” said Bob Dyson, a spokesman for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. “Right now we have a fairly healthy mix. The real challenge now is to keep that diverse plant community healthy and strong for the next 20, 40, 50 years.”
Man has been doing its part, too.
Trees have been felled along roads and drainages to stop erosion. Logs have been hauled off to mills.
Large, pyramid-shaped piles of “bio-mass,” or wood chips, wait to be transported as fuel for a planned energy plant.
And plastic cones, 16 inches in height, cover pine seedlings planted by the Forest Service.
It’s boom time for Rob Huft. The 52-year-old Forest Lakes resident owns a company that cuts trees, thins home lots of overgrown vegetation and advises residents about the dangers of wildfire.
“Business shot through the roof afterward,” Huft said of the Rodeo-Chediski. “I had a year backlog almost immediately.”
Forest Lakes was one of the few communities spared. Huft and dozens of other volunteers spent weeks building firebreaks, and, along with firefighting teams who lit backfires, helped to spare the small town. Others east of him weren’t so lucky, but their determination to survive was forged by the fire itself.
Capt. Ryan Turner, 32, of the Linden Fire Department, lost his Timberland Acres home to flames along with 105 others. He drove up to his home a day after flames pushed through, exploding propane tanks, dropping powerlines and melting aluminum awnings. His flag survived and his cohorts lowered it to half-staff.
Still today, he talks slowly about the pain of loss. But his community gets together regularly to talk about it. A local group gives trees to neighbors who lost some. And on June 30, the town is planning to remember the wildfire.
“People of this area have really come together and helped each other out,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t know who your neighbor is until something bad happens.”
In the neighboring town, Charlie Brown, 60, a volunteer with the Clay Springs/Pinedale Fire Department, is putting the finishing touches on a home after losing two in the Rodeo-Chediski. This time, it will have concrete siding, a concrete deck and a steel roof.
Permits for new-home construction on the blackened areas along state Route 260 are being granted as briskly now as they were before the fire, Navajo County Assessor Cammy Darris said.
“The whole area is coming back,” Heber-Overgaard to Show Low, Darris said.
Buyers weren’t scared off by the fire, she said. “People are buying, selling and splitting off property faster than we can process it. The whole area is doing quite well.”
AN INDUSTRY BUILDS
Driving state Route 260, motorists can see piles of wood chips outside Heber-Overgaard, a community that lost more than 200 homes.
Those pyramids of “biomass” eventually will be hauled to a power plant that will use the woody waste to fuel a 24-megawatt power plant being completed 12 miles east of Snowflake.
The chips will burn and drive a steam turbine to generate power to be sold to Arizona Public Service Co. and Salt River Project.
The company, Mesa-based NZ Legacy, had been pursuing wind and solar energy technologies but reshuffled priorities after Rodeo-Chediski.
In short, the fire created a market: The small wooded fuel that normally would be burned or left on the forest floor now is intended to deliver power to homes in the White Mountains. The plant is to open in the first quarter of 2008.
“We witnessed the devastation and frankly saw the fuel for a potential biomass plant and shifted our priorities,” said Scott Higginson, company executive vice president. “It was the impetus.”
ANGER STILL SIMMERS
In the dining room of Brown’s rebuilt home, he pulls out a glossy photograph showing 67 fire engines, water tankers, sprayers and other apparatus sequestered on a field along state Route 260 between Pinedale and Show Low.
Lips pursed, Brown said last week he still burns with anger when he thinks about the inferno that engulfed his homes and those of his neighbors.
After the fire rolled through Pinedale, he and other volunteers said spot fires were burning everywhere but the federal management team ordered all available help to Show Low for rest.
“You see masses of people in there,” Brown said of the photo. “That’s what went into Show Low for rest and relaxation while Pinedale burned. Why did they run with this equipment and leave us?”
Brown and other volunteers defied orders and went into Pinedale to douse home fires. Similar reports across the Rim surfaced soon after the flames destroyed homes, including more than 200 in Heber-Overgaard.
Linden Fire Chief Marilyn Price wants to spill her frustration, too, but is waiting for retirement.
“It was a difficult situation. We understand more about the fire now than we did at that particular time, but will we ever get over it? No,” Price said in a reserved, carefully worded tone. “I intend to retire this year and ... I might have a lot more to say. We will never forget.”
Holdcroft, 53, a volunteer firefighter in Linden, wrote a self-published book in 2004 about the fire. He said he had to put his emotions and personal account to paper. “Walking through the Ashes” criticizes the federal response and exposes the friction between the feds and locals.
Forest Service officials who live in the communities acknowledge frustration still lingers among certain vocal residents. But high-ranking officials who were in leadership positions at the time maintain that the fire, estimated to be seven miles wide coming over the Rim, was simply too large to fight and crews were exhausted.
That no one was killed or seriously injured should be measured as a success, said Tom Beddow, former deputy director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service’s Southwest Region. He retired in January and at the time worked in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
“When the (federal) incident management teams come in, their first and foremost thought is the protection of life,” Beddow said. “If they can go in and protect structure safely, they will do that. The real judgement call is can they do it safely?”
Despite all the heartache and frustration, people across the Rim are almost unanimous in saying that residents, local firefighters, federal crews and the forest itself are better prepared should another megafire ignite.
Homeland Security and state grants have been obtained by local departments to buy wildland fire engines, a rugged type of off-road truck that many rural departments lacked. And the feds, Beddow said, have designed many of their trucks with sprayers to assist in protecting homes.
“Most of the departments throughout the White Mountains have one, if not multiple, wildland engines and they staff those year-round,” Beddow said.
The communities, with the help of the state and county, are educating residents about Firewise, a program that advises homeowners about guidelines for thinning vegetation. Local departments purchased radios that are able to communicate with those of federal crews and are using grants to get more people trained.
And thinning the forest is a priority. Federal officials are two years into a 10-year agreement with a firm to cut and remove primarily small trees, which feed wildfires. Called the White Mountain Stewardship Project, the goal is to thin up to 150,000 acres next to at-risk communities. Federal officials say it’s looked upon nationally as a model for thinning.
Residents, too, are cautious about smoke and cognizant about thinning vegetation on their properties, many local firefighters said.
“Any little smoke plumes and we get calls. Even if it’s hazy, we get calls,” said Capt. Terri Anderson of the Linden Fire Department. “The residents, I believe, have never fully recovered.”
Heber resident Julie Anderson said the prospect of fire is never far from her thoughts.
“I guess, in the back of everybody’s mind, it’s like: ‘Is this going to happen again?’ Everybody’s worried about the next fire — if there’s a fire,” Anderson said.