Anti-Indian storm roars after fires

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FORT APACHE, Ariz. ? Firefighters continue mop-up operations at the Rodeo-Chediski wildfires, but another firestorm brews in northeast Arizona.

Evacuees of the Rodeo wildfire, frustrated and angered, are loudly blaming the White Mountain Apache Tribe and tribal members for the destruction brought on by the wildfires. According to numerous reports, local non-Indian businesses and restaurants are snubbing Apache tribal members, and even Indian fire fighters. Some Apache women have said they are afraid to shop in Show Low, the town to the north of the White Mountain reservation that was barely saved from the fire by largely Indian crews. Passions were further enflamed by the arrest of the alleged arsonist, Leonard Gregg, an Apache from Cibecue.

Some voices, however, say that northern residents share some of the blame for their choice to build in a high-risk fire area.

"It was predicted that a fire like this would happen. Homeowners at the north end and our people were told. We all have to be accountable for our own choices," said Judy Dehose, a Cibecue resident and former councilwoman.

The Rodeo fire originated four miles northeast of Cibecue on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, instantaneously exploding into a blaze of hundreds of thousand acres within days. Firefighters, both structural and wildland, answered a national fire-call and took two weeks to get the Rodeo fire under control. At press time, the fire was 80 percent contained.

The arrest of Gregg, 29, on June 29 has subjected Cibecue residents to another round of hostility.

A precedent-setting special task force of BIA Law Enforcement, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Forest Service arson specialists conducted the investigation. Tribal officials and community representatives followed the arson investigations but did not interfere, in spite of questions about jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty. It was an investigation they did not want to jeopardize or hinder.

Cibecue, a community of 3,000 traditional bilingual Apache people, is slowly bonding together to restore their lives. As reporters descended on the gymnasium of the little community for a press conference with community members, White Mountain Apache police officers were stationed at the main road into Cibecue and at Gregg's family house to respond to threats.

Dehose stated, "I don't understand how it could begin with one individual. We are beginning to endure our pain. The community needs to heal in our own way."

Community members, a quiet but observant people, voiced their concerns to Indian Country Today about what they felt was unfair news coverage.

One resident said, "It would never be the same. There will always be someone from the north who will threaten us, because of the fire, because we are from Cibecue."

Another said, "Everything has changed. Maybe I will never shop or eat at Show Low again. We are being accused."

Cibecue residents were in a state of shock.

"Our people will give you another viewpoint," said Ronnie Lupe, Cibecue Councilman, at the press conference. "Is justice unequal?"

Evacuees returned to their homes over the Fourth of July weekend, some finding untouched houses, others greeted with black ash. Recovery efforts have begun within the Rim Country. Insurance companies are processing claims, bountiful donations are coming in and federal aid is readily available to the 25,000 evacuees.

On the other hand, it might take two to three generations for the White Mountain Apaches to recover from the loss of timber. Other historical and sacred treasures were damaged by the fire and can never be replaced.

"When residents to the north have rebuilt what was lost to them, we will just be starting our recovery. Our shrines, sacred places and sites will be difficult to restore," said Lupe. "The realities of our tragedy will be hard to overcome."

At a community meeting, the White Mountain Game and Fish Department informally chronicled the case of the non-Indian woman, still unidentified, who started the Chediski wildfire.

Apparently, the woman with her husband was told by an off-reservation store that there was a shortcut through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation to Young, Ariz. Relieved to find a possible short-cut, the couple wandered into the reservation, ignoring the signs of trespassing posted at each dirt-road entrance. Ultimately getting lost in the maze of dirt roads, the man decided to walk when gas was low. The woman stayed behind. The man was picked up by a cattleman, who told Game and Fish officials that the man offered him $100 to get two cans of gas. A search was then initiated to look for the woman.

Game and Fish officials stated that search crews were two miles away from the woman when the TV News helicopter was dispatched. The woman allegedly started a fire to signal the helicopter. No smoke was visible at the time, but hours later when the TV helicopter returned, the "Chediski" wildfire began to roar.

Police reports have not been filed on the two stranded hikers, and the woman remains free on a $600,000 bond secured by their house. In the meantime, Gregg remains behind bars.

As worries now turn to the upcoming monsoon season and the possibility of erosion damage to the burned-over land, BIA Fort Apache agency is preparing a Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) team to assess the damage and plan a short-term process to quickly repair natural barriers against flooding.

The Fort Apache Historic Preservation Office has a handful of archeologists identifying sacred sites and assessing possibly irreversible damage.

All of these joint efforts are being conducted while the Rodeo-Chediski wildfires are still burning in the small areas within the perimeter. At least 60 percent of the Rodeo-Chediski wildfires, Arizona's largest to date, burned on the reservation, causing destruction to sacred sites, existing swimming holes, timber, and cultural resources.

Even with the help of federal aid, it will be a slow road to recovery for the White Mountain Apaches. Lupe reassures the community, on a poetic note, "Great nations have risen from ashes and we will too."