The Rodeo-Chediski fire five years ago was a life-changing event for thousands of people, including the firefighters and fire starters. Here are some of their stories.
VAN BATEMAN EX-COCONINO NATIONAL FOREST SERVICE FIREFIGHTER
THEN: Bateman was a career Forest Service firefighter who was tapped to direct the emergency management team after the terrorist attack in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
He commanded one of two Arizona-based elite Type 1 firefighting crews when the Rodeo-Chediski fire erupted the following year. There were 16 Type 1 crews nationwide at the time. A record four crews attacked the fire.
NOW: On June 5, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Rosenblatt sentenced Bateman to serve two years in prison for setting two unauthorized fires in the Coconino National Forest in 2004. The judge also ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine and $10,390 in restitution to the Forest Service.
The larger of the two fires covered 21.5 acres.
“My intent and desires have always been to protect the national forest as best I could,” he told the judge. The fires, he said, were intended to clear dangerous underbrush.
LARRY HUMPHREY EX-BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT FIRE MANAGEMENT SUPERVISOR
THEN: Humphrey, who lives in Pima, guided one the state’s two elite Type 1 team of firefighters, while Van Bateman led the other. Humphrey and his crew of more than 40 firefighters already were assembling to fight a fire in New Mexico when they were diverted to the Rodeo-Chediski fire.
NOW: Humphrey, who’s known as “Hump” among firefighers, was barred this month from fighting wildfires on federal lands for supporting Bateman, who has been sent to prison for setting unauthorized burns to clear land.
“With the current climate that’s going on, I won’t miss it. What I’ll miss is my friends. It’s not worth the effort anymore,” he told news radio KTAR (92.3 FM) on June 7.
Bateman’s conviction, and Humphrey’s and Jim Paxon’s public statements in his support, continue to stoke heated debate on firefighter Web sites such as www.wildlandfire.com.
JIM PAXON FACE OF THE FIREFIGHTERS
THEN: Paxon was a U.S. Forest Service veteran who lived in Truth or Consequences, N.M., and served as the agency’s top fire spokesman for 13 years. He arrived at the firestorm outside Show Low and became the unshaven public face for the firefighters battling the inferno.
Paxon’s verbal lobs were legendary. He described firefighters’ objectives and strategy with a Texas twang that lent credibility to every unusual observation he uttered during twice daily new conferences and countless inter views. He slept in a sleeping bag behind the podium where he presided over news conferences.
Among his more memorable lines:
• “Mother Nature is dealing the cards on the burning conditions and it seems like she is dealing from the bottom of the deck. We sure got a losing hand today.”
• “The fire literally kicked our butts today. Mother Nature is very much in control and we cannot safely put firefighters in front of this fire until it slows down.
• “It is hard to understand what 300-foot flames burn like. This fire is burning as if someone poured gasoline on the trees, lit a match and then turned on a giant fan ... only a million times bigger.”
Paxon’s intent simply was to be understood, he said last week.
“I tried not to speak in government gobbledygook. I tried to speak as if I were one of the ones who had been evacuated and didn’t know if my house was burning or not. What would I want to know? So that’s what I tried to tell folks,” he said.
While Paxon was liked by the public, he fell into disfavor with a fair number of firefighters, who came to believe he was a camera hog. He frequently ate alone in the fire camp’s dining tent as hundreds of sootcovered firefighters avoided him.
NOW: Paxon retired from the Forest Service and moved to Show Low in 2003. Since then, he has kindled his fire fame into a number of business ventures.
He operates a consulting agency and markets himself as “Jim Paxon the Fire Guy.” He advises government officials, developers and homeowners on how to contend with the threat of wildfire in the Rim Country.
Paxon also serves as an on-air fire analyst for KPNX-TV (Channel 12) in Phoenix, works as a spokesman for Waste Management in Scottsdale and for Tate’s Auto Center in Holbrook, and sells real estate for Bison Homes in Show Low.
The Fire Guy is sure to be associated with the Rodeo-Chediski fire for years. He wrote a glossy, full-color, 217-page book, “The Monster Reared His Ugly Head.” It covers the Rodeo-Chediski fire and fire’s role in nature. He released the self-published book this month. Gov. Janet Napolitano wrote the foreword.
“People encouraged me to write a book,” Paxon said. “I really didn’t want to write a book, so I resisted for three years. Finally, about January of ’06, my wife says to me out of exasperation, ‘Why don’t you just write the book?’ So I did.”
It’s available at www.paxonthefireguy.com.
THE FIRESTARTERS: VALINDA JO ELLIOTT
THEN: The 31-yearold Tolleson resident was traveling with her boss in the White Mountain to service arcade games and vending machines. They became lost and eventually separated in the forest.
After spending three days in the wilderness, the last two alone, Elliott set a fire in some grass to signal an overhead news helicopter. KPHO-TV (Channel 5) helicopter pilot Scott Clifton landed a quarter-mile below the fire near Chediski Peak and rescued Elliott.
Her signal fire became the Chediski fire.
NOW: Former U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton declined to prosecute her on charges of arson on the basis that she had no criminal intent when she lit the fire.
In January 2003, she was arrested on suspicion of DUI, and later that year, the White Mountain Apache Tribe brought a civil action against her through the tribal court. She appealed on the basis that the tribal court lacks jurisdiction because she is not American Indian.
Her appeal is before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
THEN: Gregg was a part-time firefighter with the White Mountain Apache Tribe who lived in Cibeque with his girlfriend and her five children. Gregg, 29, worked for $8 an hour, but only when there were fires to fight.
Around 10:30 on June 18, 2002, Gregg, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, lit a fire near Cibeque Creek. Crews put out that fire, the Pina fire, within a few hours.
Around 4:10 p.m., he lit another fire near the Cibeque Rodeo Grounds. That became the Rodeo fire. Gregg was on one of the first crews called to fight it.
NOW: Gregg confessed to setting the fire. In court, he asked, “Can I say I’m sorry for what I’ve done?”
He was ordered to pay $27.9 million in restitution and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He’s being held at the U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Inez, Ky., and is scheduled for release on June 17, 2011.