June 18, 2002: Rodeo-Chediski fire breaks out

The Stapleys' home burned to the ground in a spectacular blaze. It's one of some 500 Mogollon Rim-area structures destroyed by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in June 2002.

Photo by David Sanders

The Rodeo-Chediski Fire was the mother of all forest fires of the past decade. It was then that all of the components necessary to create a monster fire synergized to form what Stephen Pyne, America's foremost fire historian, called, borrowing an analogy from poker, the "royal flush" of conditions.

The outbreak of the fire was on June 18, 2002, two days short of the summer solstice - the longest day of the year with almost 15 hours of direct sunlight. On that day a disaffected youth lit matches to dry grass in the hope of making money extinguishing the fire that he had started.

The trees were "super-dried," making them the perfect timber for a fire. The steep canyons of the area turn light breezes into strong winds, turbocharging the fire. Furthermore, the steep slopes made it extraordinarily hazardous to combat the fire as there would be no escape routes or safety zones for the firefighters.

On June 20, the third day of the fire, Valinda Jo Elliot, a lone 31-year-old, was panicking in the Arizona wilderness. Elliot figured that if she were to scale the closest mountain she might be able to pick up cellphone reception. She ventured into the thick pine forest and became helplessly lost, dehydrated and desperate.

When she heard the faint whir of helicopter blades on June 20, she realized this could be her savior, but how could she ever alert a high-altitude chopper? One idea occurred to her, and she clumped together dried grass and ignited a signal fire with her cigarette lighter. Her signal instantly blazed out of control and up the 6,589-foot Chediski Peak.

By the fourth day, the Rodeo Fire and the Chediski Fire merged into a colossal monstrosity. Hurricane-force winds of heat and flame leveled whatever was in the way, traversing geographic obstructions without a blink.

America's firefighting experts were skeptical the fire could be contained without the summer rains of July, the dying down of the winds and the cessation of the plumes. Nothing could be achieved, they concluded, fighting a fire they could not tackle - other than the loss of life and millions of dollars a day.

On the eighth day, however, the fire crews that had swelled to four incident teams comprising 6,300 firefighters applied a calculated risk with a burnout (starting a fire to rob it of fuel). This is the literal, if not the proverbial, fighting fire with fire.

The operation was a success, and the first percentage of containment had been achieved. In a fight that would last 2 1/2 months, the firefighters were finally on the scoreboard.

If the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire and other mega-destructive wildfires could have been avoided or certainly diminished by thinning the forests, why has this practice been stopped?

Beginning in the late 1960s laws protecting the environment were enacted by Congress. One thinning project for the Rodeo-Chediski region had been stalled for three years by appeals and a lawsuit.

Ultimately this was rendered moot after 90 percent of the area (nearly a half-million acres) burned in 2002.

The Forest Service warned that disaster was imminent if action were not taken immediately. The environmentalists really did want to save the woods; they ended up losing the forest.

Hanoch Teller is an author, lecturer and producer who specializes in historical narrative. Email him at hanoch@hanochteller.com