Inside the Rodeo-Chediski burn scars 20 years later

Posted at 2:15 PM, Jun 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-22 19:50:03-04

June 18, 2022 marks 20 years since the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire burned through parts of the Heber-Overgaard area.

The fire was given the nickname "The Monster" and it would go on to be the largest wildfire in the state for years to come. 

Today, the burn scars of the Rodeo-Chediski fire are still seen in parts of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Parts of the landscape are filling with Junipers, and the recovery of the Ponderosa Pines are still happening.

“I remember climbing up that lookout tower, and just as far as eye can see, can just see fire,” said Matthew Bullmore, who was just a few years into his firefighting career when the fire started.

The Rodeo fire spread fast, burning 9,000 acres in just three hours. The Chediski fire, was started near Heber, Arizona, by a woman who started a signal fire after getting lost in the woods.

On June 22, 2002 the Rodeo and Chediski fires would become one, as predicted by fire officials at the time.

The final numbers of the Rodeo-Chedeski fire were staggering; $43 million to control the fire, 6,600 fire personnel, 460,182 total acres destroyed and 491 structures burned.

Nearly 50,000 residents of Showlow, Linden, Clay Springs and Pinedale were evacuated.

On June 20 alone, the fire burned nearly 71,000 acres.

Firefighters saved over 2,000 homes.

Show Low Mayor John Leech Jr. was part of the Rodeo-Chediski Task Force put in place and recalls leaving his family to help.

“I did 23 years in the fire department and I never seen anything like that,” he said.

Two decades later, forest officials are treating some of those half a million acres that burned, as there is debris left behind in the burn scars.

From burned trees that look like match sticks in the ground to trees that have fallen over — both pose a risk to firefighters if a new wildfire were to erupt.

"That creates a continuous fuel so the fire is harder to contain," said Nathan Parsons with the Apache-Sitegreaves National Forest.

Along with the hazard of continuous fuels on the ground, the dead, burned trees pose a risk to firefighters if they fall down.

Fire officials with the forest also work on prescribed burns in the burn scars to treat the land, and use heavy machinery to break down the debris left behind.

Despite all the work 20 years later, there are still areas that need to be treated in case a fire would emerge in those scars.

The Navajo County Board of Supervisor's made a proclamation to declare June 2022 as the "20 Year Remembrance of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire".

The proclamation states, "Today we look back and acknowledge the hundreds of fire personnel, law enforcement, county staff and volunteers that supported the first responders, evacuees and Emergency Operations Center. We also acknowledge our resilient citizens of Navajo County."

“We will never forget the valor of the first responders who put their lives on the line to preserve the lives and homes of their neighbors. We will never forget the volunteers who opened shelters, the teams who relayed information day by day. We are stronger together. We are better together,” wrote Navajo County officials in a Facebook post.