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As Fires Heat Up, Spokesman Stays Cool

Wildfires: Jim Paxon of the U.S. Forest Service has gained a measure of fame telling it like it is.

June 30, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — For more than a week, the news has been dreadful. The nation's most destructive forest fire has been roaring through canyons and into wooded subdivisions and small mountain communities, incinerating more than 400 homes and forcing 30,000 people to flee.

Those stricken by the grim news said that at least they found some comfort in hearing it from Jim Paxon, the Texan with the brush mustache who lays out the facts bluntly, sometimes with a lyrical twist, as a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"He's terrific. He tells you exactly how it is," said Steve Splawm, 79, of Summer Pines, who took refuge at the Red Cross evacuation center in nearby Holbrook. On news programs, he and more than 100 others sit in front of two large TVs for Paxon's briefings. "He uses plain language and doesn't sugar-coat anything," Splawm said.

Like the time Paxon reported, "We got beat up real bad today," and later in the week, "I don't mean to be vulgar, but the fire kicked our butts today."

Daniel Waelrock, 56, of Overgaard, said he appreciated Paxon "for his ability at storytelling."

Like Paxon's explanation of how an inversion layer cooled the fire: "Today was a good day for firefighters. The reason was, if we're in a kitchen and we're cooking, we've got bacon grease in a skillet, and that bacon grease catches fire. If we put the lid on that skillet, it suppresses the fire. It puts it out. This inversion that we had over us all day today essentially was the lid on the skillet."

Everyone loves Paxon, from reporters looking for good quotes and sound bites to residents wanting the straight scoop. At Round Valley High School in nearby Eagar, messages written to firefighters on a wall around the football stadium included this one: "Paxon for president."

His value to the Forest Service as a translator of technical news for common folk was recognized in 1988, when he was helping fight several fires in the Yellowstone National Park region that burned more than 3 million acres of public and private land.

"I was out there trying to keep up with the young ones for 31 days," he said, "and that's a long time for an old [guy].

"Someone said to me, 'You know, you talk pretty good, and you're getting old and fat. Why don't you become an information officer?' "

Every summer since, he has been pressed into service as a fire information officer.

Today, the 54-year-old Paxon spends most of his time as a district ranger in Gila National Forest at Truth or Consequences, N.M., where he oversees a staff of 50 full-time employees, 30 seasonal ones and 552,800 acres of forest.

But during fire season, Paxon turns gypsy, assigned to a fire incident commander and his staff as they travel from one large fire to the next. Newly married, he has delayed his honeymoon until fall.

Forest Service officials cringe when one of their spokesmen is singled out, but the government accepts that Paxon is a favorite among the national media. Paxon starts his day at 4 a.m. with live interviews for East Coast network news shows and wraps up local interviews at 10 p.m.

"He's phenomenal because he's been an actual firefighter and can translate that job in common words so people can understand," said George Lennon, the Forest Service's communications director in Washington.

Paxon said he's not looking for fame. "I'm just a talking head, and it's important to present an image of firefighters that people can understand."

Paxon said he resists the temptation to be too upbeat or overly glum about a fire's danger when homes and lives are at stake. He decided long ago to let the facts speak for themselves. "My granddaddy told me to stick to the truth, because it's the only thing you don't have to keep track of."

Paxon grew up in farm country around Lubbock, Texas, and in college studied animal and range science. He and his buddies fled the flatlands for a week's vacation in the mountainous Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe, N.M., and he grew smitten by trees. He joined the Forest Service as a firefighter in 1969.

By 1981 he was promoted to district ranger and became a forest land manager, but during fire seasons still traveled the country as a fire crew boss. After becoming a spokesman, Paxon learned over and again how tricky the job can be.

During the Los Alamos, N.M., wildfire in 2000 that spread from a prescribed burn, "I told reporters we were doing really well on the fire. When we stepped out of the briefing tent, 60 mph winds kicked up. Within four hours, the fire had grown from 11,000 acres to 38,000, and it burned more than 600 housing units."

Such unpredictability triggers one of Paxon's favorite lines: "You know, when you try to say what Mother Nature's going to do, she makes you a liar."

He has alternately described the Rodeo-Chediski fire as a "multiheaded monster" and "fire-breathing dragon." He justified the 437,000-acre fire's intensity: "Mother Nature can't stand all the congestion in the forest, so she's going to start over."

And when the fire stalled in its march toward Show Low, Paxon explained: "Either the monster was napping and never reared its head or the good Lord blessed us today."

But ultimately, Paxon said, "fires are won and lost by firefighters. They're the foot soldiers, the ditch diggers."

*

Times staff writer Steve Berry in Holbrook, Ariz., contributed to this report.

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