The fires this summer


Two of their own may be charged with setting major fires in Western states, but nevertheless the Hot Shot firefighters who have battled the monster infernos of the early summer season are true heroes once again this year.

What tremendous men and women are these fire-fighting crews. They are the pride of the West, and include many Native people among them. As in years past, again, we salute them.

The fires this year are truly horrendous. Dozens of major blazes are burning throughout the drought-stricken West. First in Colorado (some 138,000 acres razed) and then in Arizona, ironically, huge fires were actually started by despondent firefighters, one allegedly wounded by a relationship gone awry, the other allegedly seeking to stir up some work for himself. This second case involves White Mountain Apache tribal member Leonard Gregg, a contract firefighter for the BIA Forestry Department, who was arrested June 29 and charged with setting the wild-hopping fire that shot burning embers miles ahead of itself and came to be called, "the Rodeo." As of this writing, a huge fire burns out of control in Oregon, this one sparked by lightning, with no one directly to blame.

In Arizona, the Rodeo fire joined with another, the Chediski fire, razing nearly 470,000 acres and evacuating 30,000 people before it was contained. But this monster fire caused plenty of finger pointing. Over 400 homes were razed. People are quite angry and the deeper and more dangerous blaze of racism has reared its ugly head. As the news spread that a Native man had allegedly purposely set one of the fires, Indians shopping in towns near the reservation have reported angry insults and accusations against the tribe. Tribal people are being deliberately snubbed in restaurants and at other service industries. Donations raised for fire victims at Phoenix TV stations were not at all directed toward victims on the reservation. Very little anger was expressed at the stranded Anglo woman hiker who accidentally set the Chediski fire but everyone seems angry at Gregg, who allegedly set one fire to earn a paycheck fighting it. Unfortunately, the anger and prejudice of some local residents is now directed at all Indians.

The combined actions of the two fire-setters caused great damage to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, where it destroyed more than 200,000 acres, including some 700 million board feet of harvestable lumber with an estimated value of $237 million. The loss of timber will close down a logging operation and two reservation mills that employed over 700 people. This is a severe blow to the economy of this 13,000-member tribe, already suffering from 62 percent unemployment. The Fort Apache Timber Company represented a $50 million investment from the tribe's very depleted capital base. Additionally, the tribe's other major investment, the Hon-Dah Casino Resort, closed down because of the fire, became a crucial command center and housed the many outside crews that arrived to fight the conflagration.

The reality that the overwhelming destruction of the fire occurred on the Fort Apache Reservation, where forest recovery is expected to take over a century, appears lost in the angered response of some local residents. Clearly, many people suffered greatly. Nevertheless, racially motivated hostility is an unacceptable response. Analysts say now that preventive, controlled burns should have been carried out, in order to diminish the amount of dry tinder that in hot, windy weather seriously aggravates fire conditions. However, it appears that even in recent months when controlled burns have been attempted, local residents complained about the invading smoke and nixed the prescribed burns.

It is equally true that firefighters also saved thousands of homes. Acre by acre and mile by mile, it has been through the courageous efforts of Type I and Type II fire teams that the fires have been contained at all. Show Low, a town where reportedly Indians have been snubbed and even insulted, and where residents earlier halted controlled burns, was in fact saved from destruction by mostly Indian fire crews. Prejudice and irrational thinking is the fuel of racism.

We commend the visit to the area by President George W. Bush, who among other activities conducted a private meeting with an Indian helitack crew that received a lot of subsequent media attention. The President also met with White Mountain Apache Chairman Dallas Massey. "We are all in this together," said Bush. Bush's visit perhaps did more than anything to let people in the state understand the important and courageous response by honorable Native firefighters to the tragic events.

Great kudos are also due to the San Juan Band of Mission Indians from California, who have announced a donation of $1 million to the White Mountain Apache. The National Indian Gaming Association raised a further $1 million for the tribe during its recent two-day legislative conference and the Jicarilla Apache separately donated $25,000. The gifts will help the affected tribe rebuild its devastated economy and way of life.

The fire season is just getting started. Presently, fires burn in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, South Dakota (Black Hills) and other states. The Western drought is in full swing and year by year, it seems, fires are getting more and more fierce. The inordinate heat of the past decade is also a suspect worth considering, as many scientists have predicted the creation of such "monster" fires as the Rodeo-Chediski as well as other "mega-disasters" by the impact of a measurable global warming trend. As one firefighter noted, "Something is happening to the weather. This heat is just not normal."

Beyond the fires of summer and the heat of racial antagonism, the burning of the West (and East, as the Adirondacks and northern Quebec also flared beyond normal this year) just might require deeper study. The courage of firefighters will only be taxed beyond its human limits if we don't look at the larger picture in considering causes and solutions to this worsening problem ? one that will affect all our future generations.