Forest Lakes Owners Association

Rodeo - Chediski Fire
June 18-20, 2002

Some of the articles are from "Biography of a Monster" 
The Arizona Republic, June 30, 2002

The other articles are our own updates provided online during the fire

For a printable version which, since it is full of photos, may take a long time to download!

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 - 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 1-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

Valinda Jo Elliot was beginning to panic. The lush pine forests that first seemed so refreshing, now felt forbidding. The 31-year-old hiker had been lost for three days. She was tired, dehydrated and desperate when she heard the rotors of a helicopter. Setting a small signal fire seemed the only way out of what, for her, was a nightmare. Her decision, though, kindled terror for thousands. 

Smoke Plume from the Chediski fire seen looking down Rim Loop, Thursday, June 20

Jeannie Van Lew
Forest Lakes resident

Unwittingly, Elliott was responsible for the last of an almost-unimaginable series of events and circumstances that converged to create The Perfect Fire. The signal fire Elliott lit took seconds to begin racing up the side of 6,589-foot Chediski Peak. A helicopter news crew from Channel 5 (KPHO) in Phoenix spotted the blaze and swooped down on flat land three-quarters of a mile away. 

With Elliott slip-siding down the mountain away from the spreading flames, KPHO's Scott Clifton radioed satellite coordinates of the new "Chediski" fire to authorities. Before firefighters could arrive, the blaze raced over a ridge toward Lost Tank Canyon and out of control. Its northern and eastern flanks were less than 15 miles from the Rodeo fire, which continued to grow and in just a few hours would be described as a "monster."

Mitch Jacob, news director of KPHO, said the Chediski fire - Chediski is the Apache word for White Rock - started some time shortly after 7 a.m. The once-tiny signal fire was the fifth ingredient, converging with geography, weather, public policy and shear chance to create a fire like no other. "It's like drawing a royal flush," said Stephen J. Pyne, an environmental historian at Arizona State University. "Everything was in the cards, but it just doesn't happen. It all came together at maximum extenuating circumstances," he said. 

Pyne said the worst time for fires in Arizona, historically, is around the summer solstice. Thursday was the day before the solstice. The steep canyons of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests created what amounted to a chain of plumes and chimneys for fires that fed, in some cases, on a century's worth of untended, tinder-dry undergrowth. And, finally, prevailing winds that day were from the southwest, pushing the fires northeast, into south-facing terrain that naturally attracts the highest temperatures and lowest humidity. 

"You have everything that could possibly go wrong in the extreme," Pyne said. "Then you have the second fire set in a place where you can't control the perimeter of the first one. You can't put crews between them." Just before noon, southwesterly gusts 25 mph and higher fanned both fires. By midafternoon, the new Chediski fire had charred 1,500 acres. 

Around 5 p.m., the Rodeo fire leaped the Mogollon Rim and officials ordered more evacuations. The sky turned an eerie green and the air became frighteningly still as residents of Heber, Overgaard and Aripine joined those from Linden, Clay Springs and Pinedale in fleeing. At least 50 homes, barns, outbuildings and garages in Pinedale were destroyed and an estimated 5,200 people from six east-central Arizona towns were sleeping in shelters or with friends or family, wondering if they would ever see their homes again. 

"This fire is playing all the cards it has right now," said Roy Hall, fire operations chief. "We're going to pull back. It's a bleacher day today." 

The twin plumes of the "Chediski: (left) and "Rodeo" fires reached more that 30,000 feet in elevation.

Ron Schumacher
The Arizona Republic

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