Fire reaches Apache lands, nearing Hopi ranch

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

FORT DEFIANCE, June 9, 2011

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About 50 Navajo Scouts have joined 2,140 wild land firefighters who are battling the Wallow Fire, now the second largest in Arizona history and still spreading.


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The fire entered San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache homelands early Sunday morning.

The fire, believed to have started May 29 at an unattended campfire site, began about 18 miles southwest of Alpine, Ariz., and grew over the next few days to more than 300,000 acres in dry and windy conditions.

San Carlos Apache fire information officers Victoria Wesley and Blanche Hooke said Tuesday the south end of the Wallow Fire - named for the Bear Wallow Wilderness Area where it started - entered the northeastern portion of the San Carlos Reservation in the late afternoon Saturday.

Wesley and Hooke said the fire, which is about 50 miles northeast of the tribal headquarters in San Carlos, spread overnight from 53 acres to 729 acres and then jumped to 1,554 acres last Tuesday.

They reported that two Type I, or Hot Shot crews, four Type II wild land firefighting crews, and one camp crew are working day and night to stop its advance.

The Hot Shot crews - highly specialized wild land firefighting teams - include the San Carlos Geronimo Hot Shots and a crew from Las Vegas, Nev.

Three of the four Type II crews are from San Carlos.

The wild land firefighters have established their base camp about 40 miles from the San Carlos-Wallow Fire. One bulldozer has been assigned to help them establish a firebreak and perform other fire suppression tasks.

According to the San Carlos officials, the tribal firefighters were on high alert that weekend because of the Memorial Day holiday and the high fire danger conditions in the area.

Wesley and Hooke said a San Carlos firefighter was among the first to spot the Wallow Fire. San Carlos Fire Engine 42 member Chris Ashkie was scouting the Bear Wallow Wilderness when he saw fire at about 2:30 p.m. on May 29.

In addition, a lookout at one of three towers maintained by the White Mountain Apache Tribe spotted fire on May 29, said Candy Lupe, fire information officer for the BIA's Fort Apache Agency.

"It was one little fire and it blew up from there," Lupe said.

She said the south end of the Wallow Fire crossed the northeastern boundary of the reservation on Sunday.

Lupe said fire's impact on the White Mountain Apaches was not as severe as it has been on San Carlos in part because the tribe had implemented fire deterrence measures, including prescribed burns, tree thinning, and timber sales, all of which reduced available fuel for the Wallow Fire.

Tribal firefighters also did a controlled "back burn," scorching over 2,000 acres in the path of the fire to deprive it of fuel.

Lupe said White Mountain Chairman Ronnie Lupe issued an executive order on June 2 temporarily banning campfires and charcoal grills on the reservation. The order also prohibits smoking outdoors and careless disposal of matches and cigarette butts. Open burning without a permit and woodcutting is also prohibited.

Exceptions to the burn restrictions are community and ceremonial events, such as wakes, dances and cattle branding.

Violations of order could result in a $2,000 fine, imprisonment, and possible federal prosecution.

The White Mountain Apaches are also concerned about the Wallow Fire reaching Mount Baldy, which is sacred to them, Lupe said.

Wesley and Hooke said the San Carlos-Wallow Fire is in an area where tribal members collect herbs and plants for traditional healing and willow for baskets.

The land there is covered by mixed conifer and ponderosa forest and natural springs, creating excellent conditions for camping, fishing and hunting, as well as cattle production.

There are no residences in the area but it is home to endangered species, such as the Mexican spotted owl and Mexican grey wolf, the fire officials said.

The fire is prompting numerous calls from tribal members on and off the reservation, they added, with callers saying they can't get information about what is happening on Indian land from the Southwest incident Command Center in Springerville, Ariz.

The San Carlos and White Mountain reservation are adjacent to each other.

Wesley and Hooke said no residents have been evacuated but visitors camped along the Black River had to be evacuated.

The Hopi Tribe evacuated 400 head of cattle from its Hopi 26 Bar Ranch near Springerville because the fire line was 15 miles from the ranch.

Elizabeth Bohlke, chief executive officer of the Hopi Tribal Economic Development Corp., said the ranch includes five buildings. It was founded by actor John Wayne and a business partner, and still has the house where Wayne stayed plus two that house ranch hands and their families.

"While the Hopi Tribe is trying to preserve our resources in the area, we are also very concerned about our neighbors in Springerville, Greer, Alpine and the other communities affected by this fire," Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa said Tuesday. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the residents in the area."

Information: Candy Lupe, 928-338-5425, or Victoria Wesley or Blanche Hooke, 928-475-2326.

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