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Apache firefighter exhibits excellence on fire lines

FORT APACHE, Ariz. - When wildland fires erupt throughout the nation, thousands of resources are dispatched to extinguish the blazes. Among them is veteran wildland firefighter Rick Lupe.

Lupe, a White Mountain Apache, has answered many fire calls, spanning his 25 years of fighting flames for the BIA at Fort Apache Agency. He has faced ardent and blistering heat exploding from uncontrollable wildland fires at national parks and forests and supported international emergency hurricane recoveries, but last summer, the fires came too close to home.

The Rodeo-Chediski complex fire began as human-caused incidents, wind, desert dry-heat, and devastating drought conditions combined with a dense tinderbox forest to conjure a disastrous precedent-setting event. The monstrous Rodeo blaze exploded on its second day, devouring over 50,000 acres of Apache land. Another new fire, Chediski, demanded immediate attention nearby, scorching over 60,000 acres on a single day. As one, it quickly evolved into a highly lethal tempered wildfire.

Initial Attack (IA) from ground crews, air tankers, engines, helitack and overhead management attempted to grasp control, but the wildfires traveled at high rates of spread and produced towering flame lengths. Eventually, IA crews pulled back into designated safety zones to bear witness to the billowing smoke plumes, shaping into epic proportions. A national fire call was initiated.

Lupe arrived at the Incident Command Post (ICP) in Show Low, Ariz. He is a part of the National Type 1 Southwest Incident Management Team comprised of various federal, state and tribal personnel who apply their skill and experience to managing a wildland fire incident.

As the team planned a strategy of attack, known as the Incident Action Plan (IAP), all available local wildfire crews, structural firefighters, and volunteers prepared to wage war against the growing destructive force.

Lupe conducted an assessment of the situation. His initial thoughts were "how are we going to stop it?" The wildfire had already shown its potential. It overran natural firebreaks. It used all scientific elements of the fire triangle's scientific elements: fuel, heat and oxygen. It traveled uncontested through Apache land.

As the IAP became available and fire incident officials were briefed, Lupe headed to his assigned division that ran north from Mogollon Rim, a deep divide of rocky caverns to a northeastern direction. His division stood between the fire and the town of Show Low that had been previously evacuated for precautionary measures. Lupe knew that his division would have a tough fight.

In Lupe's prior involvement with BIA prescribed fire (RX-burn) operations near the northeastern flank, his familiarity of the area became his advantage and requesting for his former crew became his leverage to turn the tides on a fiery tyrant.

"I knew I needed a crew I could truly rely on. So I requested for the (Fort Apache) Hotshots to be diverted from another assignment (division) to assist me. I've worked with them for so long that I knew that they were capable of doing the work," said Lupe. In retrospect, he acknowledged that holding the fire's northeastern flank, heavily relied on the backs of 20 young Apache men.

The Fort Apache Hotshot crew answered Lupe's challenge. They began consecutive night operations with few hours of rest in between. Under the dark smoky sky, the Hotshots and other fire personnel burned treacherous fuels that fed the evolving blaze.

A few decades ago, the specialized crew was BIA's first organized national resource, solely comprised of American Indians. Today, the Ft. Apache Hotshots are among five other Type 1 Hotshot crews that are sponsored by BIA on a national level.

Miles away at home, Lupe's wife, Evelyn and his three teenage sons watched the unfolding events on TV and heard updates on the local radio station, KNNB. One night they viewed Lupe giving critical assessments of the fire's progress. Watching him in harm's way trigged a well-known flow of emotions.

"All these years, we have gone through a lot of prayers ? for him to come back home to us when he gets called out to these fires," Evelyn claims. "It hits the boys the hardest. But each time he leaves, I remind them that this is what your dad does best and he knows what he's doing."

The couple granted Indian Country Today a rare glimpse into their family's struggle during Lupe's absence, the hardships of sacrificing family time and the burdens of uncertainty.

They met some 21 years ago at a valley college in Phoenix. The family watched Lupe's rise from a basic wildland firefighter to obtaining responsibility of a Hotshot crew and now, a division/group supervisor working toward Operations Section Chief qualifications - a position achieved only by a handful of American Indians.

Evelyn admits she wasn't prepared for the lonely summer days that lay ahead of being a wildland firefighter's wife. Usually, a Southwest fire season stretches from early April into the late summer months, even longer, if other states are experiencing vast wildfire outbreaks.

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During fire season, Evelyn held down the fort and responded to the plethora of phone calls from other wives and girlfriends of crew members. In those days, she declared herself the unofficial Hotshot secretary. Evelyn jotted down messages and recited them to Lupe when he called home. In turn, he delivered and relayed messages too. They both chuckle at the memories.

Of course, his many stories of outlandish crew escapades and the frightful near-misses, are retold on the family's porch. Evelyn still cringes at Lupe's close-call accounts, but she continues to support her husband's quest.

For Evelyn, the financial stability that stems from the wildland fire business tends to outweigh any hardships derived from Lupe's occupation. The White Mountain Apache tribe, like other Indian reservations, harbors a high unemployment rate. But in the early days, it was a tough adjustment. Evelyn remembers a day's fishing trip abruptly interrupted when a fire call reached Lupe. The family returned home to help Lupe pack his fire gear. It was one of numerous times their family outings ended in heartache over a wildland fire event.

"My husband wasn't there the whole time. He's not there to fill that spot," Evelyn proclaimed, tears streaming down her cheeks. "But when he stopped that fire, he showed that he knows what he's doing and he's among the best of the best."

One night, an exhausted Lupe phoned Evelyn. He told her, "I'm not letting this fire get out." The next day, Evelyn's co-worker alerted her that KNNB had been blaring Lupe's predicted accomplishments. The northeast flank that threatened Show Low had been snuffed out.

"They stopped the fire. He did it. I was so proud of him. The boys were too," exclaimed Evelyn, after digesting the information. When the news broke, tribal members and the local communities approached her with grateful admiration.

In perspective, Lupe's division maintained an upstanding safety record. Throughout the Rodeo-Chediski fire incident, there were no human fatalities. For both civilian and fire personnel, only minor injuries were reported.

For his unrelentless fight to topple a daunting inferno, Lupe presided as Grand Marshall over the White Mountain Apache Fair and Rodeo last Labor Day weekend. The Fort Apache Hotshots were selected as Honorary Grand Marshalls.

Being in the public eye is somewhat of a new realm for Lupe, but he graciously accepts the spotlight when necessary. Lupe has been given various plagues, letters of appreciation, free meals at the local restaurants, and so on, but none are more personal to him than the handshakes and pats-on-the-back, he receives from other fire personnel.

In the end, Lupe stresses the need to educate the general public's perceptions between a controlled RX-Burn as opposed to the devastating effects of an uncontrollable wildland fire. He reiterates the keys to slowing down raging fires, like the Rodeo-Chediski, are the continued efforts of logging, burning and thinning. The efforts are deemed a controversial practice to environmentalists, but in the region, it's heralded as a lifesaver. Plus, it may be just a taste of future events to break records of wildland firefighting history.

"We are going to see more and more of these large fires," said Lupe, from his position of expertise. "To me, there are a lot of fires that are becoming major catastrophes."

More wildland fire activity will mean more time away from his family.

"If it wasn't for my wife and kids, I wouldn't be out there doing what I'm good at," said Lupe of his family's support.

"It's my job. I've been doing it for a long time. It's something that I am good at. It's exciting to see all those groups of people (fire personnel) come together for a purpose."

In all the hazards of battling wildland fires, Evelyn is comforted by future visions of growing old with Lupe. They giggle at the thought of sitting in their rocking chairs, talking old-age nonsense, perhaps surrounded by many grandchildren. And as always, Lupe will deliver those exhilarating fire tales to them as he does with his sons on the family's porch.

In Evelyn and Lupe's relationship, their deep devotion to each other echo sentiments of a proverbial kind: let no man, nor wildland fire, put asunder. Clearly, the Lupe family exemplifies a true fire family, possessing the grit to trudge through vigorous fire seasons and managing to stay together.

For technical review of wildland fire terminology, we extend appreciation to Norbert Pechuli, Fire Prevention Officer, San Carlos Apache Tribe and Keith Burnette, Prescribed Fire Use Specialist, Western Regional Office, Branch of Forestry.