WHITERIVER — In 2002, the Fort Apache Timber Co. employed about 400 members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, sustainably harvesting ponderosa pine while maintaining habitat for the Mexican spotted owl and Apache trout.
Running with two mills, the company's annual income was about $30 million and was the tribe's second-largest economic driver, earning national recognition as a model of tribal economic development, and as evidence of how a tribal government could wield self-determination to create a sustainable economy.
All that went up in smoke over three weeks in the summer of 2002. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire — which ignited on tribal land on June 18 as the Rodeo Fire and merged with the Chediski Fire advancing from the northeast — raged across 276,000 acres of the tribe's prime forest land. About 450 million board feet of lumber, estimated to be worth more than $100 million, turned to ash. Without the tall, straight trunks from the pines, the Fort Apache Timber Co.’s operations suffered a near-fatal blow.
But the 16,000-member tribe lost much more.
Homes burned. Valuable watersheds were left charred and barren, unable to hold back the coming monsoonal rainfall. Tribal members were shocked and saddened to learn that the Rodeo side of the fire was set by a young Apache seasonal firefighter who needed work. And, a year later, the tight-knit Apache community grieved when one of their own, whose leadership helped hold back the flames from nearby Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside, perished after being severely burned during a prescribed burn.
The fire's aftermath also took a mental health toll on tribal members, who suffered the loss of cultural sites, whether temporary or permanent, sacred to Apache people.
Tribal firefighters played critical roles in containing the fire, and forestry experts acknowledge that forest thinning work completed by the tribe before the blaze likely saved some of the White Mountain communities.
And in the 20 years since the fire, the White Mountain tribe has worked to recover from the economic and cultural losses, rebuilding its forestry business and restoring the damaged watershed.
Forest, forestry recover faster than expected
In the fire's wake, Ben Nuvamsa, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent who directed the agency's fire response and oversaw other fire teams on the Rodeo side of the fire, said the timber stands on the reservation's west side could take up to a century to regrow.
The Fort Apache Timber Co., now known as White Mountain Apache Forest Industries, suffered a severe downturn, said current manager Gary Moore. Millions of board feet of scorched wood ultimately were sold as salvage out of state, he said. The reduced supply forced the closure of one mill in Cibecue.
"After the fire there wasn’t enough timber on the west side of the reservation to support both mills," Moore said.
Nuvamsa said his team at the BIA worked day and night to prepare the 18 salvage sales that offered 240 million board feet of timber to outside logging companies. That work reduced the fuel load for future fires and bark beetle infestations, he said. Some of the trees on steeper slopes were harvested using a helicopter. The salvage operation steered clear of critical species habitat, Nuvamsa said, thanks to previous surveys conducted by the tribe and the BIA for that purpose.
"I want to recognize our foresters that put up the timber sales and sold the timber and provided a source of revenue to the tribe that otherwise would have been lost," Nuvamsa said.
The timber sales also helped stem the loss of revenues from White Mountain's biggest employer, Hon-Dah Resort Casino, which had closed its doors to serve as a command center for fire crews during the fire.
The Whiteriver mill operated until 2008, then closed until 2013. Moore said the mill ran intermittently from 2013 to December 2018. The tribe's timber industry has been slowly recovering from the fire and the timber company finally began to revive in 2019.
"We began hiring people back in April 2019 and ramped up to full production by early 2020," said Moore, who became general manager in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the mill's upward movement for a few months, he said, but the company bounced back to full production again quickly.
The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded the White Mountain tribe a $3.3 million grant to upgrade the large log mill. Moore said the tribe has also asked the EDA for $10 million to upgrade its small diameter saw mill and is waiting for a decision. White Mountain also invested $6 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to build a new planer mill in Whiteriver. The new mill will start operations in mid-July.
The Whiteriver mill employs about 170 tribal members directly, Moore said, and provides another 60 indirect jobs.
The lumber market has changed, he said, helping support the mill's current prosperity. The tribe is selling harvested timber to Mexico, where it's used to make window and door moldings for new home construction, which Moore said results in increased business for the mill. The tribe is sending a delegation to Mexico City to discuss trade with tribes in Arizona.
The mill saw a profit for the first time in 30 years in 2021, he said.
The tribe's forestry management also has contributed to the forest industry's current prosperity, Moore said.
"The forest on the reservation side is different than the Forest Service's side," he said. The rate the tribe can cut wood was set at 50 million board feet per year, which is considered sustainable. Currently about half that is being harvested. "But the regeneration rate is pretty high."
He said the forest is regenerating faster than what's being cut, and the sustainable yield may exceed 50 million board feet in the future.
That rosy assessment comes with a caveat: "Wildfire continues to threaten one of the tribe’s major resources," Moore said. "We hope that by increasing the saw mill production volumes and the pace of forest restoration treatments that our logging operations provide we can be part of the solution to prevent the next Rodeo-Chediski Fire from destroying the White Mountain Apache timberlands."
Cibecue Creek, Pumpkin Lake restoration
As the Rodeo-Chediski Fire was contained in July 2002, fire crews returned to their homes and residents began assessing the damage. But the fire wasn't done with the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
More was incinerated than homes, trees, bushes and shrubs. The fire damaged several culturally significant sites over the course of the 21-day blaze and stripped slopes of vegetation that normally absorbed rainfall.
Pumpkin Lake, one of the community's sacred places, was completely burned over. Dawnafe Whitesinger, a White Mountain Apache tribal member and a Navajo County supervisor, said the people hold the water itself sacred.
"The story is that there's no bottom to it, that it's never ending," she said. "And so people often go there for prayer, or to get some of the water for prayer in their homes and so forth."
The lake lies just outside the town of Cibecue on the western side of the reservation. Many of the most traditional Apache people call that town and others in the district home, and a number of sacred and culturally important sites dot the area. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported that the fire damaged about a dozen sites deemed sacred to the Apache people on tribal lands.
“It was heartbreaking," Whitesinger said. "I didn’t think I’d get teary eyed, but it's something that's so special to us, and then when you see it destroyed in that way … the thing is that the water itself is so beautiful. It's like this green, blue. And you feel like you can see forever into this water. But to see the devastation was so heartbreaking to many of us.”
Later in the summer of 2002, the monsoon brought heavy rains, which washed across the denuded slopes above Cibecue Creek. Communities along the creek flooded for several years after the fire.
In the two decades since, several initiatives to rehabilitate forested areas, cultural sites and irrigation systems have helped restore the area. A Burned Area Emergency Response, or BAER, team was organized through BIA's fire management agency, holding events with Apache speakers to engage with the community. The tribe also encouraged its citizens to plant seedlings that had been started in a local greenhouse to aid in fire recovery.
"The rehab work is not just a couple of months afterwards, it continues on," Nuvamsa said. "Nature has to take over and then start repairing itself."
The tribe and the BIA launched immediate solutions such as barriers, called jetty jacks, to impede debris from clogging waterways, along with other types of fencing, all to stop erosion and prevent the loss of topsoil. Replanting native species came next, Nuvamsa said. Restoration also included providing for wildlife in the area.
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Groups of youth worked on projects in the waterways designed to help revitalize natural springs, Whitesinger told The Arizona Republic. They fenced around natural ecosystems, planted trees and in the process learned about their Apache community's ties to their lands. Fisheries that been damaged by ash and debris were also rehabilitated.
Pumpkin Lake appears a bit different now, but hasn't changed in its essentials, said Whitesinger.
“Environmentally, you would think just based on aesthetics that it has changed," she said, "but it's amazing to me, that just the physical properties that it still possesses of being sacred are still there.”
In 2022, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service announced funding to conduct a feasibility report for a potential watershed and flood operations project at Cibecue Wash. Gloria Montaño Greene, a deputy undersecretary at the NRCS, visited the site to announce the project, funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Rick Lupe 'was just a hero'
Rick Lupe, a White Mountain Apache and fire boss with the BIA, is praised by many as the man who helped stop the fire from destroying Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside. Lupe led four hotshot crews to keep the blaze from leaping across Cottonwood Canyon after it jumped across Hop Canyon. His crews built a fire line that stopped the fire from reaching the communities.
"He led his crew all night, and his work cleared the way along that canyon," said Nuvamsa, who worked with Lupe at the BIA. "He put in a fire line that kept the fire on the west side. If it had jumped the canyon, then you got a lot of shrub oak and other smaller woodlands that would just taken off and Show Low would have just burned up.
"He was just a hero."
In April 2003, Lupe, who worked in wildland firefighting for more than 20 years, was working a prescribed burn at Sawtooth Mountain in the White Mountain Apache reservation, when he suffered severe burn injuries after his emergency shelter blew away in a strong wind. He died a month later with his family and Nuvamsa at his side.
In 2003, Eagle Scout Richard Genck, who was 16, spearheaded a memorial to honor Lupe and other wildland firefighters in Pinetop-Lakeside. The memorial, which included a statue, was inaugurated in 2005. A flagpole was donated by local businesses in 2008.
How tribe's thinning slowed the fire
The two fires that merged into one were both human-caused. Valinda Jo Elliott, who started the Chediski Fire after being lost in the woods for days, was never charged with a crime, although the tribe successfully sued her for damages.
But Leonard Gregg, the White Mountain Apache man who set the Rodeo blaze in hopes of being hired to fight the fire, received a 10-year sentence in federal prison. The Republic was unable to learn Gregg's current whereabouts or contact him for comment.
For years after, the non-Indian residents of the communities in the White Mountains blamed the tribe for the loss of their homes and land, straining relations between the communities.
Nuvamsa said the damage from the 2002 conflagration could have been much worse. For one thing, he said, no lives were lost.
"But the main thing that kept the fire from being more destructive was our hazardous fuels program, thinning programs and prescribed burns," he said. "A lot of that was attributed to saving entire White Mountain-area communities. Show Low would have been gone, Pinetop would have been gone if we hadn't done that thinning."
When the blaze reached areas where the tribe had been treating forests and other lands, "it just laid down," Nuvamsa said. Creating what's known as a "low and slow" burn enabled firefighters to quickly stop the fire.
But Nuvamsa, a Hopi, continues to watch wildfires, including the recent Pipeline Fire near Flagstaff, which threatened sacred and culturally significant sites on the San Francisco Peaks. The mountains north of Flagstaff are held sacred by many tribes, including the Hopis.
"That's where our kachinas live, that's what our belief is. We have shrines up there," he said.
He's also aware of how most wildfires are caused. "Both the Rodeo and Chediski fires were started by humans," he said. "It seems like every year we have fires caused by careless people, smoking cigarettes or campfires that aren't put out 100%."
Native peoples consider those lands to be their home, Nuvamsa said. "If I were to go to your home and started a fire in your backyard, how would you feel? What would you do?"
To prevent future blazes, Nuvamsa said, people need to respect "our living mother earth."
By showing respect, he said nature will return the favor in many ways.
Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: White Mountain Apache Tribe has fought back from Rodeo-Chediski Fire