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Cibecue Fire Crew helps extinguish Kinishba Fire

CANYON DAY, Ariz. - Two young Apache woman, a part of Fort Apache crew No. 41 from Cibecue, Ariz., provided the last bit of assistance in extinguishing the Kinishba Fire.

On a solo media tour to the northern edges of the Kinishba Fire, travel begins alongside passing structural fire engines, Type I Hot Shot crew carriers, and other fire personnel released from the fire, a process known as demobed. Most are heading home, others to new wildland fire starts.

The tour begins where blacktops reach dirt road. The drive continues through a rough stair-cased road that was widened with bulldozers and used as a firebreak by fire personnel.

At the mountain's top, the monsoon rain is approaching the area that will dump rain on the faltering 22,600-acre blaze.

Several crews are on-call or in Initial Attack (IA) mode. If the fire or burn operations turn drastic, these fire and engine crews will be the first to respond. They also watch for spot fires that may shoot outside the perimeter. But on this day, IA fire personnel are relaxed, checking their fire gear and tentatively listening to the ongoing radio communications from the work below.

As the road winds back down, Kinishba's destructive terror becomes more visible. Mountains of blackened forest rise to meet cloud-cast skies.

In some areas, white ash dots the mountain ranges where the fire unleashed its deadly explosive runs, attempting to escape the encircling human-dug and bulldozed firelines. The fireline containment stops Kinishba from causing more damage by robbing the fire of needed fuels.

Within the fire's perimeter, the Fort Apache No. 41 fire crew, from Cibecue - a place of testament to last year's destructive Rodeo-Chediski fire complex, are conducting mop-up operations.

Harriet Hosetosavit and Cheryl Lewis, both White Mountain Apache Tribal members and first-time wildland firefighters work as a team, checking for hot spots.

Tragic fire disasters are nothing new to this duo. They both survived last year's precedent-setting blaze, Rodeo-Chediski that grew into epic proportions: thousands were evacuated, homes were destroyed, land blackened and annihilated, wildlife snuffed out - it was a turning point for them.

Hosetosavit and Lewis became motivated to cross the threshold to the ardent world of smoke-filled skies, raging unpredictable fires, floating black ash, never ending standby readiness, extensive travel and arduous work to get involved. They decided to join the fire ranks to protect their beloved lands.

"It really impacted me ? how close it came to the homes," said Hosetosavit, who was at college at the time, but remained concerned for her elderly grandmother, who resides in Cibecue. She stayed informed with local TV coverage. "Cibecue is considered like a vacation land, but now it's just hot. The mountain used to create a cool breeze. Now, there is nothing but black everywhere and no breeze."

The southern end of the Rodeo-Chediski reached several miles of Cibecue, but prevailing winds circulated the fire north. If winds had suddenly changed to a southern direction, the little town of Cibecue would have been affected differently, but that didn't happen.

Hosetosavit voiced what community members are whispering. "They say there's no more Cibecue," she confessed in a low tone.

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Lewis stands quiet nearby, nodding her head in agreement.

On this fire incident, Lewis, born and raised within the close-knit town of Cibecue, talks about her first helicopter ride. She is also crewmates with her father.

According to Lewis, her father had since been laid-off due to the Cibecue sawmill downsizing and firefighting is a means of temporary employment for him and his family. She heard that the Cibecue sawmill will close permanently in October.

A day prior, Lewis and her crew were called back to the safety zone. A burnout operation below them had quickly allied with winds and began a frightful climb toward the crew. The Cibecue crew, along with other fire personnel, was ready to deploy their fire shelters - a thin aluminum blanket that firefighters use as a last ditch effort to survive an oncoming fire.

IA crews and air attacks jumped on the testy blaze delivering tons of water and retardant to tame it back to a smaller size.

It brought relief to the crew at the safety zone. They placed their shelter back into its covering. Perhaps saving it for another time, perhaps not - a cruel realization for firefighters.

"At least I have a family member with me," said Lewis, thinking about yesterday's hazards. Lewis anticipates coming back to the firelines next year.

Hosetosavits will be returning to Northern Arizona University in the fall to complete her master's degree in Health Sciences at Northern Arizona University and may add a forestry-related subject to her studies.

She sums up the firefighting efforts that occurred in her backyard.

"It's a bittersweet experience. It's having to know your 10's (Safety steps or LCES) and 18's (fire watchout-situations). It's seeing those huge 100 to 200-foot flames," Hosetosavit said, flashing a big bright smile that enlightens her black ash smudged face. "It's that adrenaline rush that keeps me going. It's a natural high. You learn things every day."

A spitfire answer for a petite female that gives much credit to her mother, a single parent and a former fire timekeeper, decades ago.

"I was also amazed at how they (fire business) look at Fort Apache. Fort Apache has a name out there. It's a good feeling to be a part of that," Hosetosavit claimed with a sigh.

Hosetosavit and Lewis were apart of a co-ed fire crew with their all-women's squad of five led by a male squadboss they fondly refer to as "Bosley" - a character from the TV series, "Charlie's Angels".

Looking beyond to the far north past Kinishba's firelines, the forest is alive. A cool breeze and the distinct smell of needed rain usher past.

The forest seems to stand at ease because young bright Apaches are uniting and taking up a fire tool to protect their homelands.