Most people know what it means to live somewhere like California, if you live there, a lot of people know you also have to live with earthquakes. I’ve lived in the high country of the Southwestern United States, primarily in the four corners region, for nearly 20 years.
Living out here I’ve witnessed many large forest fires and seen the ravages that fire can leave behind. I’ve also seen what happens after years of regrowth. A forest can come back and takes many years to become what it was but more often people have the harder time getting over a fire.
Along with learning to live with fire I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know and being friends with the people who fight fires, Hot Shots, Helitack Crews, Tanker Drivers, Fire Tower Watchers, and Smoke Jumpers, alike. Although it takes a certain type of person to fight a forest fire, those people could be anyone. Men, Women, younger, older, it doesn’t matter, fire fighters come in all walks of life and that shy demure little girl down the street could be one of fiercest Hot Shots you ever knew. Over the years living in the high country, my respect for those who lay their lives on the line to fight forest fires has grown and keeps on growing. Although fighting fires in general is hard and even though I have respect for all fire fighters, fighting a fire in a wilderness area with steep canyons, or dense underbrush or any type of back country terrain is about as hard and hot as it could get.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that most people, wouldn’t last ten minutes, if even that, fighting a forest fire, I know I couldn’t do it. I know because I considered it once in my life, but after talking to some Hot Shot friends in length I realized I didn’t have what it takes to do it. On the other side of fire are the people who live in the high country, those people who could become uprooted and homeless in a matter of minutes because of a fire. The closest I came to that was being evacuated from my work place in Pinetop AZ during the Rodeo/Chediski fire, we couldn’t go back to work for over three weeks.
I remember the evening well. I was working at the Hon-Dah Casino just outside of Pinetop and we had been given the word we may be evacuated. The fire had been burning for a little over a day and was dancing on the tops of the trees getting nearer to Pinetop and the casino. At one point one of the security guards came to me and said “be ready to leave in about 30 minutes,. I immediately told the band I was setting up they had to get out now or they would be stuck in the area. We broke their gear down and they high tailed it out of there back to Phoenix a.s.a.p. By the time I was ready to leave it had been a little over 40 minutes. By the time I made it to the road block, they weren’t going to let us through. A couple of locals convinced the National Guardsmen we were residents and needed to get to our homes so we could leave. An interesting note here is earlier that day as I came to work I noticed National Guardsman in huge troop trucks coming down the highway towards Pinetop, in my gut I knew then that something was up.
While driving through Pinetop on my way home I saw people with their cars full of stuff lining up at the gas stations and rushing out of town. The whole scene was surrealistic and definitely post apocalyptic. I lived about 36 miles out of town and took a back highway to the main one, on the way down the road I could see Pinetop/Show Low to my left, as I drove I could see the flames licking on the edge of the towns. Huge flames were rising above the hills and towering over the silhouette of the towns. Things just became more and more surreal as I drove. The closer I got to the main highway I could see it, and there was the line of cars, a mass exodus to the east, away from the fast approaching fire. The trail of red lights went on for what seemed forever on in to eternity, this was my first experience of a mass exodus of humanity.
The drive home was long and arduous, it was the longest 30 miles I had ever driven, as we approached the Y in the road where I turned off to my home, it became obvious they were funneling people to Springerville where the evacuee camp was to be. After a brief encounter with the guard I finally convinced them that my home was to the left and they let me pass. The rest of the trip home seemed like another world after the long ride to the way point. When I got home I talked with my wife who had been toying with the idea of going to California to see her grand mother. I convinced here it was a good time to go and I would stay home to take care of our house.
The rest of the story is long and the days were filled with smoke and worry and pensive waiting. One thing I have to mention is, I went to Springerville one day to pick up my paycheck from work. The checks were being distributed at the evacuation camp. As I entered the area I walked among campers, trailers tents and in to the huge indoor stadium to get my check. Once again I was hit with the surrealism of living with fire. For a time I had been protected by my home and the fact that I was able to stay there, once again I was surrounded by the evacuation reality and the fact that so many were homeless at that moment in time.
In America there are few times when people become refugees, during a forest fire it can happen in an instant for so many. Rodeo/Chediski was a huge fire it burned from June 18th 2002 to July 7th (my birthday) and burned 468,638 acres of ponderosa forest and destroyed homes and business’s, 481 structures in total. To date it’s still ranks as the second largest fire in Arizona history. A fire fighter in Heber-Overgaard was quoted to have said “I just walked through the pathway to Hell”. A man who lost his cabin to a 50 foot swirl of flames said “It was built to burn”; he returned and rebuilt.
The reason I write this story now is at this very moment there are men and women fighting a large forest fire to the east of our home called the West Fork Complex. Granted it’s a good 100 plus miles away, but we can see the smoke plumes from our place and it reminds us of what could happen here as well. The people of South Fork have been evacuated and several other towns are threatened. I know how they feel, I know what they are facing, the fire has grown rapidly and although it has burned down from it’s original raging intensity it still poses a huge threat.
Over the years we have heard about the refugees created by hurricanes and tornadoes, wars and famine, but the refugees that are driven out by fire seem to be people who fight, who strive to return home no matter what and in some instance refuse to leave at all. The spirit of those people who are fighting that fire is no different than any I have witnessed and they stand firm and strong, risking their lives for the sake of others and the very land that burns before them. I have lived in California where the ground shakes, and I grew up on the Gulf Coast where Hurricanes blow, I’ve seen tornados rip through trees and building’s, and watched rain create torrents of water causing floods.
Fire, is another animal, it lives and breathes at the expense of others, trees, homes, people. It rages and howls like a wild animal, unpredictable and some times unstoppable. Living with fire is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, one thing is for sure, I’ll never understand it.
(Dedicated to the Men and Women who fight fires)
John Garza, 6/27/2013