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Apaches struck by natural disaster

CANYON DAY, Ariz. - The Kinishba Fire, a rapidly expanding wildland fire, threatens the White Mountain Apache Tribal housing communities, prime timber, Hon-Dah Casino and ancestral Apache lands.

A mid-July dry lightning storm ignited the fire near ancient ruins known as Kinishba, pronounced (Ki'ni-sh-bah) in Apache, translated as "Brown House," on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Immediately, the BIA and Fort Apache Agency dispatched fire crews to the location in attempts to surround the intense fire with a fire line. But the fire began showcasing dangerous smoke plumes, reaching high into the summer sky. The plumes eventually collapsed exploding hot embers in all directions.

"We have our property (land) that's in jeopardy," said Tribal Chairman Dallas Massey at the Canyon Day Elementary school, the backdrop for the Incident Command Post (ICP), "but the Type I team (assigned) they can get the resources right away."

With the critical elements at risk, a Southwest Type I Incident Management team was ordered. The Team has assumed the responsibility of managing the incident on the second day.

Upon its start, Kinishba was visible to the Apache communities, starting only miles east of Whiteriver, the largest reservation settlements. For precautionary reasons, the tribe initiated its Local Emergency Response Team that began evacuating approximately 5,000 residents from six communities alongside Highway 73.

The Whiteriver Indian Health Service (IHS) Hospital airlifted 17 patients to the Phoenix Indian Medical Clinic. The Emergency Room remained open, however, all other clinic needs were diverted to the Cibecue clinic.

The evacuation was successful. Six evacuation centers at the reservation school played host to thousands of evacuees. The smooth evacuation even impressed Red Cross representatives.

"It's going great. The tribe saw the need to evacuate and set up the shelters," said Devonne Husband, managing the Red Cross efforts on the reservation. "We are working with the tribe very closely, so the needs (of the evacuees) are being met."

The Red Cross is providing for immediate needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Other reservation churches are providing relief, too.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano visited the evacuees on July 15. The team briefed the governor on the fire's behavior and later met with the chairman behind closed doors.

Massey along with several tribal council members escorted the governor to two evacuation centers at the Fort Apache Historical Park and the Seven-Mile Elementary gymnasium.

Napolitano declared Arizona in a state of emergency that released $200,000 in emergency funds toward the firefighting efforts. Navajo and Gila counties, where the reservation presides, were declared disaster areas.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) began providing support to local Apache Law Enforcement by monitoring the emptied communities. National Guard deployed 500 troops to the incident.

If the fire continues to fiercely evolve, the next emergency declaration would come from the United States President.

On Kinishba's third day, the fire began running back into the mountain ridges after an awesome plume show. The bright orange flames manifested before a media briefing at ICP. Chairman Massey, spoke at the podium and as he witnessed the dancing fire, said, "Seeing those flames, it really hurts us." The area burning is a highly cherished cultural place.

"The White Mountain Apache people are so close to their land. The damage (that) occurs to the land hurts us," said Massey. The areas where the fire is located contain fruits, wild nuts, tea and domestic firewood such as mesquite trees. The area is also a prime grazing place for animals.

Massey pondered how damaging it will be if the fire crosses Highway 73 and continues northeast into prime timber or due east into the Apache communities. He spoke of the Fort Apache Timber Company (FATCO) timber plant that lies in Whiteriver filled with abundant piles of harvested timber from last year's Rodeo-Chediski fire.

Chairman Massey issued an executive order that closed campsites in order to prevent any future wildfires. A fire restriction remains in place.

The Kinishba Fire allied with the jagged topography, winds and record-breaking drought conditions to explode throughout Apacheland. To date, the fire has consumed more than 13,000 acres. At least 1,000 fire personnel are providing structural protection, digging fire lines and bulldozer lines to keep the blaze out of canyons. More firefighters and national resources are on their way. Extreme fire behavior accompanied with active spotting and crowning of treetops continues to burn the pinon, chaparral and mix-timber.

The team has identified "trigger points" that will allow law enforcement to issue an evacuation notice to Pinetop, Hon-Dah, and McNary communities.

The Kinishba Fire continues to creep through Apache lands and in the daily shadows of smoke plume, Apaches hold their breath.