Revisiting the Rodeo Chediski Fire

Show Low, AZ – When you ask someone in the White Mountains, where were you when the fire broke out, everyone has a story.

WHITING: (pulling up to his property in his truck) This piece of land where they have a start of a home going up on this was this was my place right here.

Darin Whiting is captain of the Show Low fire department. He lost his home to the fire while he was busy protecting other people's homes.

Whiting is a tough looking guy with biceps as big around as some of the trees left in his yard. His bald head is tan from all his time spent outdoors.

SFX: truck door closes

We get out of his pick up truck to take a closer look at what's left of his old property.

WHITING: Right now that you and I are standing here is the first time I've actually stood right here in a couple of years because it's kinda painful to me. I don't like coming back here. I see this place it was my dream home and now it's somebody else's.

Whiting held onto his land for a couple years until he realized financially he wasn't going to be able to rebuild.

Whiting's house was one of 465 lost in the fire. Twenty-two hundred were saved. Help came from all over the country.

Jim Paxon came from a fire in New Mexico to work the Rodeo Chediski.

PAXON: This was a historical event. People left not knowing what they'd come back to. Would it be their house or would it be a pile of ashes and rubble?

AMBY: rocking chair, bird chirping

Paxon sits on his back porch in his rocking chair overlooking healthy ponderosa pines. Charred crooked trees that look like they belong in a scary movie are only a half mile away. He's just published a book about the blaze entitled "The Monster Reared its Ugly Head."

PAXON: It just was so huge you can't imagine five and six mile wide flame fronts, 300 feet flames running five six miles an hour. It's incomprehensible but it's like a small atom bomb going off. So it truly was a monster.

Paxon became known as the face of Rodeo Chediski. He was the guy on CNN and every other news outlet giving fire updates constantly.

He hopes his book will help people understand fire's natural role in the ecosystem.

PAXON: Fire is as natural as sunshine, rain and fresh air and we'll have fires that come against communities maybe not this season but surely in the near future we will.

He says even though this is the most devastating fire in the state's history, only about a fifth of the White Mountain community is prepared for another fire.

Few people have thinned around their homes, but the forest service is partnering with a local company to thin 150 thousand acres.

The Rodeo Chediski fire burned hottest in areas choked with dense ponderosa pines. Now, though, the landscape resembles a close up of a man's razor stubble with what's left of the blackened trees.

AMBY: Van driving on dirt road

Driving out on the burn area Fred Green looks for shade - a near impossible task in a stretch of forest that's been wiped out by fire. Green's an assistant district ranger on the Sitgreaves National Forest.

SFX: van door

Green points to areas of the forest that are coming back.

GREEN: This piece of ground is on its way to recovery and it's doing about as well as you would expect. You can see there's a good understory of grasses. There are some trees starting to come back. If you look this way you'll see on the horizon there's a patch of trees that's pretty well in tact that part had a light burn that went through there.

Green says tall grass and new trees have been planted where the fire burned the hottest. The White Mountain Apache Tribe has also reseeded thousands of acres, but they're still dealing with erosion and flooding.

More than half of the fire burned on the reservation.

Forester Mary Stuever has been instrumental in helping the tribe recover over the last four years.

STUEVER: We live this fire. This is our reality everyday day in day out every once in a while an anniversary comes along and the rest of the world remembers we're out here and we appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit about what we're up against on a daily basis.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe has almost used up their federal reforestation dollars so tribal chairman Ronnie Lupe has asked Congress for more resources. They're dealing with an unemployment rate that's doubled since the fire to 80 percent. He says the fire hit them on an even deeper level as well.

LUPE: I never thought I'd see a strong man with tears running down. I've seen their fathers their brothers pass away I never saw tears. But when they saw the west side of our reservation burning no matter how strong they held it back but the tears came down. Those tears are still running today.

In addition to sadness there's also anger. Tribal member and part-time firefighter Leonard Gregg is serving 10 years in prison for admitting to starting the Rodeo Fire for work. Federal officials decided not to press charges against Valinda Jo Elliott who says she started the Chediski fire when she got lost on the reservation.

But Lupe says the tribe is still trying to press trespassing, arson and other charges in its own court system.

LUPE: The loss is so devastating psychologically. You name it. It just hurts. Everyday we talk about this. Why is one in jail and the other one is not?

Lupe says in another five years they hope to have retribution but he knows it will take centuries for the forest and his people to fully recover.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.