The Rodeo-Chediski fire, which ignited five years ago today and torched almost 469,000 acres of Arizona timberland in three terrifying weeks, sparked a change in public attitude about wildfires.
People who live among the ponderosa pines in northern Arizona, as well as those who walk the halls of government in Phoenix and Washington, D.C., have discarded the notion that forest fires are preventable.
Instead, they’re focused now on how to prepare for the next one.
The Rodeo-Chediski fire left little to doubt, burning itself into history as the largest fire in Arizona history.
The blaze pulverized overgrown woodlands in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. It leapt over the mostly rocky Mogollon Rim and burned so hot that trees ahead of the fire line exploded when the sap inside them boiled.
Before it ended, the fire destroyed 465 homes in the Mogollon Rim towns of Forest Lakes, Heber-Overgaard, Clay Springs and Pinedale along the previously scenic state Route 260.
Now, five years later, portions of the highway are lined with miles upon miles of grey hills and blackened tree trunks.
The firestorm helped create the right political climate to pass federal legislation that reversed forest management practices, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
“I can say that, because we needed two fires — we needed this and the California fires,” said Kyl, who along with President Bush toured the Arizona fire as it burned in 2002.
Kyl and his fellow Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Larry Craig of Idaho, among others, pushed the measure the previous year, but it stalled. Following the fiery summer in Arizona and California in 2002, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon joined the effort and helped guide the measure to passage, Kyl said.
The legislation appropriated $700 million a year for forest thinning, restoration and research. Perhaps most important, the measure created a mechanism for the U.S. Forest Service to offer 10-year contracts to private-sector companies to thin forests.
That allowed businesses to make long-term investments to develop markets for small-diameter trees, those too small to be used for lumber. New businesses in Show Low are grinding small trees into peanut-sized pellets for heating fuel. The trees also are made into animal bedding and building materials, such as railings and paneling.
Thinning became necessary after 100 years of forest management practices that concentrated on fire prevention, said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
Left alone, lightning-strike fires every five to seven years would have cleaned out underbrush while leaving larger trees standing. Forests are so dense now that fire climbs to the tops of trees — as it did in the Rodeo-Chediski fire — and then spreads uncontrollably.
These “crown fires,” as firefighters call them, burn right past obstacles, such as the Mogollon Rim, that otherwise would serve as natural firebreaks.
The first 10-year forest-thinning contract awarded was in the Apache-Sitgreaves, under the title of the White Mountain Stewardship Project. By no coincidence, the treatment area abuts the charred landscape created by the Rodeo-Chediski fire.
The contract calls for 150,000 acres to be thinned. Lands that supported 1,600 trees an acre before 2002 are being cut to 100 trees an acre.
Environmentalists who previously had opposed Forest Service thinning projects are on board with the new approach.
“We’ve spent a lot of time working up there in the last few years trying to build agreements with folks that we traditionally have not agreed with,” said Todd Schulke, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson.
That endorsement is nothing short of remarkable for the group of environmentalists, which Forest Service officials used to call a “frequent filer” because of its numerous lawsuits to halt old-style thinning projects.
Activists always have been interested in preserving old-growth trees, which is in accord with the new approach, Schulke said.
“Obviously, it’s not about trying to make two-by-fours any more. There are quite a few businesses that have developed to utilize the small trees, and that’s the kind of thing we want to see,” he said.
The overall change in mind-set is remarkable, said Jim Paxon, a retired Forest Service firefighter who served as the agency’s chief spokesman during the Rodeo-Chediski fire.
“A thing that’s real big is that people now understand that we’ve got 10 to 20 times too many trees and they’ve begun to thin. It’s not just the agencies; it’s the private land owners are thinning,” said Paxon, who lives in Show Low.
“However, only about 20 percent of the private lands in the Show Low area have been thinned. We just need to do a better job of educating and getting the word out that if we don’t thin, Mother Nature will do it with a fire, and right now, that’s not going to be very pleasant,” he said.
Most of the thinning so far has created buffers near urban areas. But to effectively slow potential firestorms, thinning also has to be done deep into unpopulated areas, say forest managers.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Gov. Janet Napolitano formed the Forest Health Council to foster a dialogue among environmentalists, ranchers, loggers and others who use state lands.
Though the Rodeo-Chediski ravaged the forested areas outside of Show Low just five years ago, forest managers say it already is time to consider using fire again to thin some areas.
Sprouting trees like oak and juniper have thrived since the burn — even ponderosa pines have come up in rows as if they had been planted like corn.
Forest managers’ ultimate goal is to thin the lands to the point where they don’t have to intentionally set fires and can let nature take its course. The idea is to let fire play its natural role in the ecosystem.
“If you had a lightning strike, you could be in a position where you could let it burn and let it accurately predict where it will go and what kind of fire behavior you were going to have,” said Fred Green, assistant ranger for the Apache-Sitgreaves.
Painful memories of the wildfire in 2002 linger for Julie Anderson, a waitress and bartender at Al & Diane’s Red Onion Lounge in Heber. She lost nearly everything.
As the fire advanced, she helped evacuate her former in-laws from town. By the time they were safe and she tried to venture back into Heber to retrieve some of her own belongings, law enforcement officials had barricaded the roads.
Her home and her 3-year-old Ford Ranger pickup burned. The only possessions that withstood the heat and flames were some old iron skillets her great aunt had given her.
“It broke my heart. I swore I would not come back to the mountains afterwards, but here I am again,” she said.
Anderson spent the year away from Heber with family in Scottsdale, but she felt a stronger sense of community in the Rim country, where she had lived for 10 years before the fire. So she took a chance and returned, not knowing exactly what to expect.
“After the fire, I thought for sure that several people would leave because I know a lot of people who lost everything they owned, but they’re all still here making a go of it. The community has even been growing bigger,” she said.
While new construction abounds, signs of the destruction remain.
Near Overgaard Market, part of a brick wall and a couple of burned-out vehicles remain where a feed store once stood. A bit farther down state Route 260, a brick fireplace stands where a bed-andbreakfast once was located.
And sometimes the smell of soot is stirred by the breeze.