The Rodeo-Chediski wildfire did more than destroy trees and homes.
It bruised egos, spawned dissent among firefighting agencies and delivered a dose of reality to Rim country residents.
Lessons have risen from pine ashes. Local and federal officials now say firefighting policies have been revised and forest-thinning efforts stepped up. Others say change among residents has been slow.
"I truly believe that those of us on the ground floor will never again see what we saw last summer," said Linden Fire Chief Marilyn Price. "I think (federal authorities) understand that they cannot come into a fire district and tell the local people who are losing homes that they cannot help fight fires."
There were widespread reports that experienced volunteers and heavy equipment that could have built fire breaks went unused until it was too late, and that local crews with intimate knowledge of the area were shoved aside.
Tom Beddow, fire management officer for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, said federal officials have revised some firefighting strategies to include local authorities as part of the command structure.
That means local fire officials would be involved in the day-to-day decision-making.
In Heber-Overgaard, many residents fumed that they weren’t allowed on the fire lines, even though they had equipment to help. Fire Chief Mell Epps said he stands by his decision to not allow people on the fire lines without certification.
But the Forest Service didn’t always keep Epps abreast of its efforts to stop the fire along the Rim, he said. Crews of wildland firefighters were battling the blaze when it topped the Rim, but Epps didn’t know about them until months later.
"There definitely was" a problem with communication between federal and local firefighting efforts, Epps said.
Show Low Fire Chief Ben Owens said both firefighters and the public are much better prepared. However, "there’s a lot of forest that’s not burned," he said. "We’re not out of the woods."
Preparations in Show Low for this fire season include:
• Buying three new vehicles: Two brush trucks and an all-wheel drive military truck with a pressurized 250-gallon water tank.
• Eleven aircraft are less than an hour away from Show Low with pilots and crews on stand-by.
• Intensifying educational programs for firefighters in advanced wildland firefighting.
In the spring, Pinetop-Lakeside became the first Rim community to pass an ordinance requiring homeowners to clear debris and trees around their homes. Over six years, the ordinance requires a 1-acre lot be thinned to an average of 100 trees. Some areas that burned had up to 2,000 trees per acre.
It’s a step forward, but getting residents to thin their properties in other areas is still a challenge, said Stephen Campbell, a forest agriculture expert who runs the Navajo County Cooperative Extension Service.
"All in all, it hasn’t changed a lot of people at the grassroots level. Some of it is denial. Another part I think is that some people are just kind of fatalistic," he said.
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