2002 Chediski-Rodeo Fire

 

The Rodeo-Chediski fire, which began on June 18th, 2002, was the largest recorded wildfire in Arizona history. It burned nearly 500,000 acres, caused the evacuation of 30,000 people, destroyed 491 homes and six businesses and captured international media attention around the world. The following chronology details the day-by-day events that took place as firefighters, national guard troops, and locals battled the inferno that was the Rodeo-Chediski fire. 

 

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June 18 

A fire just northeast of Cibique on the Fort Apache Reservation is spotted in the afternoon. It burns between 100 and 300 acres by nightfall. 

 

June 19

Winds kick up. The "Rodeo" fire - so named because it started near the Rodeo Fairgrounds five miles northeast of Cibecue on the Fort Apache Reservation - leaps in size, burning from treetop to treetop among the Ponderosa pines.

Flames reach 300 feet high and temperatures at the head of the fire are 2,000 degrees. The 6-mile-wide fire is moving at 1½-mph.

 

Danger forces fire crews to pull of the frontlines by mid-morning.

 

About 5,000 people in Clay Springs, Pinedale and Linden begin evacuating.

 

Arizona 260 closes between Heber and Show Low. The fire burns 10,000 acres by 5 p.m.

 

June 20 

By mid-morning, "Rodeo" expands to 30,000 acres, sending a smoke plume skyward that prompts some commercial pilots to radio into towers about possible thunderstorms. Authorities say the fire is arson-set.

Meanwhile, a second blaze begins burning near the Chediski Peak northwest of Cibique when a lost hiker ignites a signal fire. Crews from the "Rodeo" fire is sent to build a line round the smaller fire.

 

The "Chediski" blaze jumps the fire line, and grows to 1,500 acres. The two fires are about 15 miles apart.

 

Residents in Heber and Overgaard are ordered to evacuate.

 

The "Rodeo" fire consumes 85,000 acres by the end of the day.

 

June 21 

Winds continue to fan the two blazes.

The "Rodeo" fire covers 150,000 acres by midday, and the "Chediski" fire consumes 16,000 acres. By evening, the two are about 8 miles apart and still at 0 percent contained.

 

More than 8,000 people from 6 towns have been evacuated.

 

As many as 100 homeowners in Clay Springs, Pinedale and Linden defy fire officials' demands and sneak back to their houses. Some take four-wheel-drive vehicles to go around barriers, and saw down trees and bulldoze trenches to protect their homes.

 

June 22 

Structures in Overgaard and Heber burn.

 

The fires combine to char more than 235,000 acres - nearly the size of Mesa, Chandler, Tempe and Scottsdale combined. There are conflicting reports about whether the "Rodeo" and the "Chediski" fires have merged.

 

Fire crews race to bulldoze two horizontal swaths south of Heber to contain the fires. They also try to build a containment line in Hop Canyon and perhaps set a prescribed burn to rob the "Rodeo" fire of fuel.

 

The efforts fail as the fires blow past the lines. Flames could be seen from the Juniper Ridge area of Show Low for the first time.

 

By evening, the "Rodeo" fire reaches Hop Canyon, triggering the ordered evacuation of Show Low's population of 7,700. Another 3,500 residents in Pinetop-Lakeside also get the orders to leave town.

 

No containment in sight.

 

June 23 

The fires char about 300,000 acres by noon.

 

Preliminary figures indicate about 115 are destroyed by the two blazes; fire officials credit crews' round-the-clock efforts in saving 1,000 other structures from burning.

 

Gov. Hull says declaration of the area as a federal disaster zone is imminent, which would free up federal aid to help the affected communities.

 

She notes that the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is home to the largest pine groves in the country, then added, "I have no idea what's left of it."

 

June 24

Diminished winds and cooler temperatures slow the fire's advance as firefighters develop a strategy they hope would keep the flames out of Show Low. Four "Hot Shots" crews arrive and help fight the fire as it creeps within a half-mile of the historic town.

About 100 firefighters choke the fire by burning a section of grass and meadow to the south, stopping the blaze from jumping U.S. 60. That keeps the fire from running on and incinerating Hon Dah to the east.

 

The fire spreads across 331,000 acres, as firefighters slosh it with fire retardant, slap at it with shovelfuls of dirt, and try to head it off by carving firebreaks in two canyons near Show Low.

 

President Bush announces he visit Arizona and tour the area damaged by the infernos. He also plans to declare the area a national disaster, freeing up millions of dollars in federal aid and loans.

 

June 25

The "Rodeo-Chediski" fire draws to within a quarter-mile of Show Low as President Bush arrives to buck up firefighters and evacuees.

Bush stops to sign autographs, posed for pictures and even signed a firefighter's yellow jersey. "Thank you," Bush told firefighters as he shook hand after hand.

 

For the first time since the fire began, firefighters have smiles from ear to ear.

 

Bush tells 66-year-old Garth Greer, a Show Low resident, "Hang in there, we are going to whip this thing."

 

The fire muscles up to 375,000 acres, the size of Los Angeles, growing in several directions and making a run north toward Taylor.

 

But fire officials worry most about its eastern edge, dangerously close to Show Low, and its southeastern portion, where it threatens to jump U.S. 60 and open another front. In such a scenario, flames could run north toward Show Low and the Pinetop-Lakeside area.

June 26

For the first time, there is containment: 5 percent.

 

"We're on the scoreboard. We haven't been there for eight days," fire spokesman Jim Paxon says.

 

The containment is in the area of Clay Springs, Linden and Pinedale, communities already savaged by the fire.

 

Fire officials take local officials and media representatives on a tour of the Heber-Overgaard area, providing the first glimpse of the fire's devastation.

 

In Overgaard, the First Baptist Church survived the flames, but property east of it was torched for half a mile.

 

Pinecrest Lakes, the hardest-hit area, lost 166 of 200 double-wide mobile homes. Dozens of log cabins lay in charred heaps.

 

"It's heartbreaking," Payson Mayor Ken Murphy says.

 

Meanwhile, authorities announce that a special federal task force has been set up in Whiteriver to find those responsible for triggering the "Rodeo" fire. The White Mountain Apache Tribe announces a $6,000 reward for information leading to prosecution of a suspect, this on top of a $30,000 reward offered by the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

 

So far, no arrest.

 

The fire grows to 409,000 acres.

 

June 27 

Weary evacuees wait anxiously to hear when they might be able to go home again. Homeowners from Timberland Acres, Pinedale Estates and Clay Springs will get van tours Friday and Saturday but will not be allowed to get out of the vehicles.

The fire reaches 417,000 acres, but remains quiet near Show Low.

 

The bigger worries lie near Forest Lakes southwest of Heber, as flames there flare up.

 

In Payson, evacuees from Heber and Overgaard are increasingly angry over what they call a Show Low bias shown by the Forest Service.

 

Several express frustration at hearing officials talking on and on about saving Show Low while saying little, if anything, about their communities.

 

Fire crews make more progress. Containment is listed at 10 percent.

 

June 28 

Firefighters continue their fight to prevent a tongue of the "Rodeo-Chediski" from reaching hundreds of homes in the Forest Lakes subdivision, about 40 miles west of Show Low as flames overrun a containment line.

Crews set backfires to choke the oncoming blaze, bulldoze clear areas around the homes, spray fire retardant on structures and get ready to put down any spot fires caused by flying embers.

 

Fire authorities complete their damage assessment in Heber and establish a hotline to check on the status of their homes.

 

Navajo County officials announce that homeowners from Timberland Acres, Pinedale Estates and Clay Springs will get van tours of their neighborhoods today and Saturday, but will not be allowed to leave the vehicles.

 

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., visits Show Low and Springerville and talks up the need to change policies to allow for better forest management. He joins a chorus of politicians who blame hardcore environmentalists and their refusal to support any efforts to thin the forest.

 

By nightfall, officials say they have 27 percent of the fire contained. More than 447,000 acres are burned, and at Forest Lakes, flames are within 2 miles of homes.

 

June 29 

Thousands of people forced to leave Show Low in a mass exodus begin returning to their homes - to dead flowers, rotting food in refrigerators, smoke-scented air , but home sweet home.

 

Businesses embrace the return of normalcy. Wal-Mart workers unload crates of tomatoes, lettuce and apples as local shoppers arrive to grab cleaning supplies and produce to restock their refrigerators. On many businesses, 'welcome back' signs greet the return of town residents.

 

People wave and honk at one another as they drive into and around the town. "I'm just so happy. I can't do anything but cry," Barbara Williams says.

 

As night falls, federal sources and White Mountain Apache Tribe officials confirm that an arrest has been made in the human-caused "Rodeo" fire that started near Cibecue, the first of two blazes that later merged as one giant inferno.

 

The offender, the officials say, is a Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighter. More details would be released the next day, they say.

 

At the end of the day, the fire has charred 455,000 acres and cost at least $17 million to fight.

 

June 30 

The suspect in the "Rodeo" blaze is identified as Leonard Gregg, a 29-year-old contracted firefighter.

Authorities charge him with two counts of setting fire to timber, underbrush, grass or other flammable material - the second relating to a separate one-acre fire that was quickly put out.

 

The authorities reveal that boot prints at the fire scenes and an odd conversation Gregg had before the "Rodeo" fire broke out helped trip him. Gregg allegedly told a woman he was visiting that he had to go home because he and other firefighters would be summoned to fight a blaze in the rodeo grounds area - this before the "Rodeo" fire had been reported.

 

According to a statement of probable cause filed by a BIA agent, Gregg admitted to setting the fires because he was angry at his parents' drinking problems. He also admitted that he expected to make money from the fires given his seasonal employment with the BIA, the statement says.

 

At a preliminary hearing in federal court, Gregg tries to apologize publicly. "Can I say I'm sorry for what I did," he asked federal Magistrate Stephen Verkamp. The magistrate cuts him off, saying Gregg shouldn't make any admission of guilt at the hearing.

 

Meanwhile, firefighters gain more of an upper hand against the blaze even as it grows to 464,000 acres: Containment is up to 45 percent and fire lines at Forest Lakes hold for a second day.

 

July 1 

Two new fires erupt north of Cibecue Monday, underscoring the continued fire dangers around the state.

A 10- to 12-acre fire about eight miles northwest of the town is contained by afternoon. A second fire about 4.5 miles north of Cibecue burns more than 400

 

 

 

acres by early evening and isn't contained.

 

The cost of fighting the 467,500-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire tops $30 million. Earlier in the day, Gov. Jane Hull approves $1.6 million in federal discretionary funds to help workers who lost their jobs because of the fire and to provide for a youth-employment program to help with forest restoration and replanting.

 

In northern Arizona, more than 25 candidates for various politicial offices take turns with quick stump speeches, and many took aim at environmentalists, spotted owls, forest-thinning policies and other scapegoats for Arizona's catastrophic fire season.

 

"The needs of owls now supersede the needs of our children, and our homes burn because of it," says Rick Renzi, a Republican from Flagstaff who is running for Congress in District 1.

 

July 3

A light rain falls throughout the day as 3,500 evacuees make their way back into the Heber-Overgaard area after nearly two weeks in a Payson shelter.

Some return to unscathed homes. Others stand at the property line and see charred wood, twisted metal and an occasional keepsake covered with soot.

 

"You can feel mad or sad or whatever you want, but that's not going to help you get anything done," says Al Berg, who lost the house he built in Overgaard more than 10 years ago.

 

In Flagstaff, U.S. Magistrate Stephen Verkamp denies bail for Leonard Gregg, the 29-year-old part-time firefighter who has admitted igniting the "Rodeo" fire to get work. Verkamp determines Gregg to be a danger to the community and fears possibility of harm coming his way should he be released.

 

The fire is reported to be 85 percent contained, with full containment predicted for Sunday. Cost to fight the fire has risen to more than $36.6 million.

 

July 4 

Show Low, the town spared from fire, turns out loud, proud and ecstatic for an armada of firefighters who were the heart and soul of the 66th Annual Fourth of July Parade.

"If it weren't for these firefighters we'd all be goners," says Marne Robinette, a homemaker from Show Low. "They are heroes more than anybody else I know."

 

Firefighters stopped the fire outside of Show Low, but 426 structures in other Rim towns burned.

 

It is still unknown exactly how many of those were homes, but fire officials say the fire is 90 percent contained and they are still on target to have it fully contained by 6 p.m. Sunday.

 

The Fourth of July's 81 parade entries are no-frills; few of the usual civic organizations had any time to be very fancy.

 

But the crowd of 20,000 don't seem to mind, as the display of fire engines and pickup trucks crawl down Deuce of Clubs Avenue.

 

July 7 

After weeks of battling the largest wildfire in Arizona history, firefighters from around the country are being reassigned to other states or sent home as the "Rodeo-Chediski" fire is fully contained.

About 950 firefighters and support staff remain on the fire lines, down from more than 4,400 in late June when the blaze was burning out of control and threatening hundreds of homes.

 

Fire spokeswoman Lori Cook says the remaining workers are mopping up smoldering embers.

 

They also are beginning to restore land that had been scarred by bulldozers and burned clean of foliage that had been holding the soil in place. As they work, the crews are seeding the burned land with native grasses to help mitigate erosion during the coming monsoon season.

 

July 13 

As Rim Country residents sift the ashes for pieces of their lives, the cost of Arizona's worst wildfire is coming into view and the early figures are as staggering as the blaze.

• Authorities poured $43.1 million into the effort to put out the massive "Rodeo-Chediski" fire, not including the cost of mop-up and rehabilitation operations. It burned for three weeks, forcing more than 30,000 people to evacuate a region stretching from Heber to Pinetop/Lakeside.

 

• As of Friday, Navajo County counted 491 structures lost, most of them homes, at a minimum cost of $28.3 million. And that doesn't include the value of what was lost inside those homes. Six businesses were among the casualties.

 

• More than 7,800 victims have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to qualify for assistance. In just a few weeks, FEMA has spent $267,500 on disaster housing for victims and, with other state and federal agencies, issued $420,000 in individual and business disaster loans and grants.

 

• Arizona's Department of Economic Security OK'd $600,000 in emergency Food Stamps to feed nearly 12,000 people touched by the upheaval. Last week, DES expected to approve about $30,000 in special weekly benefits for people who do not qualify for regular unemployment checks but who were left temporarily jobless by the fire. Many others in the area applied for regular unemployment benefits after the fire, causing a 575 percent spike in claims that could hike weekly payouts by $235,000.

 

July 18

Paul K. Charlton, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, tells a crowd of about 300 at Mogollon High School that stranded motorist Valinda Jo Elliott did not act with criminal intent and that there is no chance a jury would convict her of arson, given the facts.

 

Charlton says investigators spent the past month interviewing witnesses, checking cellphone logs and following other leads to confirm every detail of the account.

 

If anything, Charlton says, the evidence supports defense claims that Elliott's signal fire was necessary to alert rescuers and save her own life after being lost three days in the woods.

 

"I had 12 acres I was building a resort on," reacts Overgaard resident Steve Lillie, who shows up toting a charred pine log. "And this is what's left. ... There's no accountability. No remorse. Nothing."

 

As Charlton takes the microphone and says, "Our decision -- my decision -- is not to prosecute," Lillie, 44, stands and hurls the burned log near the half-court line, where it crashes and breaks in two. "And there's my decision!" he yells. "You want to take me? Go ahead. That's my life right there."

Burn area map

Fire getting closer to Legacy Lodge

Ominous fire clouds reminiscent of Mt. St. Helens, Washington

Fire Hose placed on propane tank - 300 gallons per minute; preparation to spare the Lodge

Aerial views of Legacy Lodge