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Rick Lupe remembered as 'hometown hero'

WHITE RIVER, Ariz. - Richard "Rick" Gene Lupe, an aspiring prominent wildland firefighter and devoted father, succumbed to burn injuries on June 19 at the Maricopa Medical Center Burn Unit in Phoenix.

Lupe, a resident and member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, had been recovering from severe burn injuries over 33 percent of his body that he sustained during a prescribed fire burn operation on May 14.

Throughout his support of numerous wildland fires and emergency incidents, Lupe became known for his outstanding safety record, hard work, humble character, leadership, decision-making abilities, and passion for extinguishing wildland fires.

Lube, is survived by his wife, Evelyn, and sons, Sean, Daniel, and Brent. He was 43.

Wind gales pass through

Lupe, along with fire personnel based at the BIA Fort Apache Agency, was in the final stages of monitoring and mop up during a prescribed fire burn when a sudden flare up occurred. He had been patrolling the fire's boundaries and was caught inside a fierce explosion of hot flames and convection gases caused by abrupt wind gales that ignited unburned fuels nearby. He sustained direct burn injuries to his arms, face and upper legs. Lupe inhaled a vast amount of convection heat - intense hot air that expels ahead of an active fire - inflicting lung damage. He managed to walk a mile after the incident to seek help from fellow fire personnel.

Lupe was airlifted to the Maricopa Medical Center Burn Init, a premier facility for burn victims. He had successfully undergone three skin graft surgeries. Lupe remained in a drug induced coma for five weeks until his recent death. He died of complications due to his serious burn injuries.

The prescribed fire burn operation had been following a specific BIA plan that would help reduce forest understory, contributing to the feeding of catastrophic wildland fires. A prescribed burn, also referred to as a controlled burn, is an effective management tool used by forest managers to provide fuels treatment that restore forests to a healthier natural ecological state. In this case, the Sawtooth Mountain project burn was to meet set objectives of clearing areas for cattle and wildlife habitat. The Fort Apache Agency has previously administered numerous prescribed fire projects successfully.

Investigation team formed

When a burn accident occurs during a wildland fire incident or on a prescribed fire, an investigation team is formed to determine the chronological events and causes.

On this incident, an Interagency Investigative team comprised of government fire personnel from various national agencies was formed. Two days following the incident, team members began arriving at Fort Apache Agency. The team has since reviewed all applicable weather conditions, interviewed witnesses, gathered sufficient evidence and investigated the site where the accident occurred, but the final report is not yet complete.

Apaches in disbelief and shock

Lupe's sudden passing jolted the little communities on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

It was last year's site for 60 percent of Arizona's largest wildfire, the Rodeo-Chediski fire complex. In the two weeks of battling a devouring beast, Lupe gained respected recognition for his knowledge and expertise of directing fire personnel in stopping the tenacious fire from entering Show Low, Ariz., and exploding into surrounding areas.

Immediately upon word of his death, a make-shift monument was erected at the front of the Fort Apache Agency Branch of Fire Management's Office. Flowers and signs were placed to honor his memory.

The tribe has issued a 30-day mourning period and all flags are to remain at half-mast, commencing on June 19. In a tribal executive proclamation released by the tribe, Lupe was officially recognized for his heroic efforts on the Rodeo-Chediski fire complex. It also stated, that "Rick was a leader for his people. His courage and vision moved mountains." Furthermore, it goes on to say that "Now, on the anniversary of that fire, Rick has died from injuries suffered in service to his people. We know that his spirit will remain in the lands he dedicated his life to protect. Our deepest sympathies go to his family."

The Arizona governor presented the state flag to the Lupe family and proclaimed that flags were to be flown at half mast throughout the state.

The family has received comforting words from the U.S. President, various congressmen, state representatives, and local honorary dignitaries as well as fire professionals nationwide.

Memorial service

The four-hour memorial service that included a Catholic mass was conducted at the Chief Alchesay Activity Center. The center was filled to its 3,000 person maximum with standing room only.

During an earlier Indian Country Today interview (Vol. 22, Iss. 47) when asked why he enjoyed his job, Lupe said, "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."

Thousands of fire personnel and civilians came together one last time on June 25 to eulogize a team member, friend, co-worker, father and husband who only thought doing his job meant making a stand against an un-stoppable beast in last year's Rodeo-Chediski fire complex.

Several American Indian Hot Shots and fire personnel representing structural firefighters, EMTs and federal fire agencies paid homage to a man who died performing the job he loved. Lupe had worked alongside some crews for many years, digging firelines and coordinating resources to mobilize an attack on raging wildfires.

A Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Honor Guard, formed especially to honor fallen firefighters, that is based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, participated in the ceremony. The Honor Guard stood motionless at the casket. While presenting the American flag to the Lupe family at the burial site, their silver pulaski's, a special fire combo tool of a hoe and axe, glimmered their mission of honoring and appreciating the ultimate sacrifice made be dedicated fire personnel, like Lupe, who died in the line of duty. The four group members were selected from the ranks of the wildland fire organization. This was the group's first appearance at an Apache traditional burial ceremony.

Lupe was laid to rest at the Canyon Day Cemetery. Fundraisers and support initiated

To date, there have been fund-raising activities to help defray expenses and to provide assistance to the Lupe family. For donations, the Wells Fargo Bank, in conjunction with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, has established the Rick Lupe Donation Fund. (Account No. 3828332563) The 100 club, a non-profit organization, and the Arizona Federal Credit Union have set up (Account No. 468902) to collect donations or credit card contributions, in Lupe's name. They will be accepted via Internet at www.azfcu.org. The club is part of a national support group that provides immediate financial attention to the families of firefighters, federal agents, correctional and law enforcement officers who are killed or seriously injured in the line of duty.

Memories and tributes remain

For his work on the Rodeo-Chediski fire complex, Lupe was awarded "Outstanding Employee of the Year" at the Fort Apache Agency. The closed-ceremony was conducted at the Western Regional Office, Branch of Forestry on June 15, days before his passing. Lupe's wife and three sons received his award.

Lupe, said of his family in his earlier interview, "If it wasn't for my wife and kids, I wouldn't be out there doing what I'm good at." The fire world and a fire family grieve the loss of a hero.

For more information, Wendell Peacock, a spokesperson for the Lupe family can be reached at (602) 417-9305.