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Arson suspected in raging Mescalero fires

MESCALERO, N.M. ? A serial arsonist may be at work in a string of suspicious fires on the Mescalero Apache reservation, says a U. S. Forest Service official, as the dreaded fire season opens in Indian country.

As many as eight fires in the last two weeks have kept hundreds of firefighters busy around the clock and triggered a joint investigation by Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement and the FBI. Six of those fires were on reservation land.

"The arsonist, we believe, is the same person who started the Trap and Skeet Fire last year that burned behind the Inn of the Mountain Gods," said U.S. Forest Service fire management officer Steve Baumgarner, referring to the hotel/resort and casino owned by the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

"This year, we've had two fires (in Lincoln National Forest) we think were arson-caused, and five or six on the reservation that we're pretty certain were arson," he said. "It seems like this person gets around."

The largest fire, labeled the "No. 5, #2 Fire" quickly spread from about 30 acres on the morning of March 23 to more than 10,000 acres by the following afternoon. No. 5 is a specific region under forestry management and #2 denotes the second fire of the season in that area.

Fueled by high winds and extremely dry conditions, the fire consumed more than 16,500 acres of timber and grasslands on the Mescalero reservation within five days.

At press time, more than 530 firefighters had managed to contain 85 percent of the fire, utilizing crews from the Mescalero Apache, Navajo and Zuni reservations as well as statewide fire crews. Three other fires on the reservation were contained after burning more than 165 acres.

On private land to the north, flames from the 962-acre Kokopelli fire burned out of control, destroying 30 homes near the village of Alto and causing more than $5.2 million in losses. Officials said that fire appeared to have been accidentally ignited in a local subdivision.

Rachel LaPaz, fire information officer for the BIA forestry department in Mescalero, estimated that some 75 percent of the crews working the reservation fires were Native Americans.

"Our Mescalero Hotshots were immediately on the scene with helitack crews and tankers," she said. "After the fire continued to grow, we sent in our Type 2 crews and we now have about 18 crews out there."

Hotshots are formally known as Type 1 crews, the most highly trained and skilled firefighters who are sent in to the most difficult and treacherous situations. They include the helitank crews who man helicopters and air tankers used to disburse fire retardant and water over raging fires. Of the nation's 65 hotshot crews, five are made up exclusively of Native Americans.

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Type 2 crews comprise the backbone of firefighting units, with 20 men and women working on each crew. They are often seasonal firefighters who handle much of the initial groundwork cutting fire breaks, setting backburns, and "mopping up" hot spots to ensure fires are completely out. They also help reseed and rehabilitate burned areas to try to restore them to their natural state.

Many crews work 14-day details and everyone works 12-hour days, stopping for meals and rest when they can, sleeping under open skies often with no shelter. They start their days at sunrise and end them at sundown, when a fresh crew takes over for the night shift, if needed.

LaPaz said many of the Native fire crews also take time for prayer at sunrise and often before they go out on the line. They stay in shape for fire season by putting in at least one to two hours per day of physical training, running three miles daily and doing aerobics.

About 40 women were part of the crews fighting the Mescalero fires and they too must meet the physical challenges of carrying 45- to 50-pound packs and toting chainsaws over rugged, smoldering terrain.

LaPaz said fire crews reported seeing groups of burned animal carcasses and many frightened deer, elk, antelope and cattle running in circles during the fires. The scenic, heavily wooded Sacramento Mountains are also home to the endangered Mexican spotted owl.

In a large fire like the 5?2 blaze, a central fire-incident management team takes over and erects a small village to provide operational support for the teams of weary firefighters.

The task of coordinating hundreds of personnel, fire engines, equipment, air support, shelter and meals in emergency situations requires good communication and cooperation between all agencies, LaPaz said.

With the fire season beginning, the Mescalero Apache reservation is now in a "class 5" restriction mode, with all outdoor fires and fireworks banned on the reservation. The tribe also has placed "gate guards," tribal members from the community, at entrances to side roads to prevent people from entering mountain roads where the fire danger is high.

Mescalero chief of police Troy Bolen encouraged all residents to be alert and report any suspicious activity or individuals seen in restricted areas of the forest who may be involved the arsons. His office is working closely with a resident FBI agent on the arson cases.

"We're carefully looking into all the fires to determine the causes and responding immediately to any reports," Bolen said. But he also cautioned that with drought conditions prevalent, even sparks from a vehicle muffler could inadvertently cause a fire.

"There's a whole gamut of things that are potential fire starters," he said, "and the best thing is for people to heed restrictions and stay out of the woods. Above all, we want to keep Indian country beautiful and safe."