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Wildfire Leaves Apaches With Misery--and Pain

Blaze: Tribal areas are devastated, as homes, businesses, livelihoods are gone.


WHITERIVER, Ariz. — Even in good times, this Apache Indian reservation community struggles from paycheck to paycheck. The 60-year-old homes need paint and screens, fences miss slats, hulks of old cars sit abandoned in backyards.

For hundreds of Apaches, Wednesday's paychecks will be the last for months because their forest has burned. Fire robbed the town of its main livelihood: ponderosa pines to be milled at the tribe's Fort Apache Timber Co.

"We will go broke by the end of the month," said Cindy Bennett as her husband picked up his last paycheck Wednesday at the mill.

About 70% of the 330 employees at the tribal company's two mills were laid off Monday as the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the nation's largest, raged through the White Mountains of northeastern Arizona. The remaining employees will be out of work in two weeks.

The fire's devastation is being felt throughout Navajo County--at least 339 homes destroyed, 410,000 acres of forest charred.

But perhaps nowhere is the economic fallout of the fire felt more immediately than by the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

In coming days, hundreds of Apaches will run out of money to buy food and medicine. The tribe already has lost millions of dollars in revenue that goes toward a variety of social services and the cost of running its government. There are no trees to cut for the mills, no elk to attract hunters, no tourists to gamble in its casino or fill its motels and restaurants--all revenue that feeds the tribe's general coffers.

The pain is felt in other ways too: Apaches are frequently targeted with icy stares when they shop off the reservation, blamed for the fire because it started on their reservation. There is resentment, too, that the Apaches' suffering is going unnoticed, with so much attention being paid to the plight of the other mountain residents.

"It was all Show Low this and Show Low that," said Sandra DeClay, referring to the city north of here that was besieged by the blaze.

"We are suffering," said Dallas Massey Sr., chairman of the tribe, which has 12,000 adult members. "Even before this, we had so many unmet needs, in infrastructure, in housing."

Indeed, this tribe was already in a world of hurt. Before this week's layoffs, unemployment stood at a staggering 60%. Household income for a full half of the families is below poverty level.

The reservation's beauty belies the economic hardships of those living here; most of its 1.6 million acres are carpeted in ponderosa pines; streams and lakes attract anglers, elk attract the hunters.

But in Whiteriver, where tribal government is headquartered in two, one-story brick buildings, there are only a handful of businesses--a band, a gas station, a restaurant and small motel among others.

For the last seven years, Nelson Bennett Jr., 37, made a living sorting and stacking freshly cut lumber. He earned about $800 a month; most of it went for groceries and the $235 car payment for his '93 Chevrolet, chronically in need of repair.

And then there's the utilities, and medicine, and the occasional toys and clothes for the children. Payday is normally a fun shopping day for the kids--maybe new shirts, new toys--but that is ending.

Bennett's words Wednesday were pointed. "I'm angry," he said. "This is the first time I've been laid off."

He's hoping for $300 a month in unemployment, and food assistance from the tribe.

But the tribe is in little position to help.

It lost $4 million in pending wood sales and $237 million in future revenue because the fire destroyed more than 700 million board feet of timber. U.S. Forest Service officials say it will be more than 100 years before that part of the tribe's forest recovers.

In coming months, mill workers will lose a total of $500,000 in wages with the end of milling and logging operations.

The tribe's hotel, convention and casino in nearby Hon Dah also have closed, costing the Apaches $3.3 million in expected revenue over the next three months.

And one of the tribe's outdoor recreation business has evaporated too, including $20,000 elk hunts and income from daily fishing and camping fees.

Altogether, tribal businesses are braced to lose $8.4 million over the next three months, and untold millions in the future, money to fund housing and other unmet needs.

All because a small fire began on the reservation June 18, north of Cibecue. The fire burned for about 24 hours on the reservation--and firefighters from the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs thought they had it almost contained when it exploded beyond their reach, said Robert Lacapa, the BIA's local forest manager.

At that point, outside help was requested. After devouring tribal woodlands, the fire stretched north into the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

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