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Town Aches as Hero Succumbs to His Wounds

Beloved firefighter Rick Lupe, who saved Show Low, Ariz., from a massive blaze last year, dies from burns he suffered last month.

June 23, 2003|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — Rick Lupe was everywhere Saturday -- on the wind, on the land, and on the minds of all the people whose homes he saved.

The day had been billed as a "fire commemoration fair," a gathering of hundreds of residents at the local high school to mark the first anniversary of the massive Rodeo-Chediski fire. But it turned into something very different when word arrived that Lupe -- the firefighter credited with stopping the blaze and saving the town -- had died Thursday from burns suffered fighting another fire last month.

"Everybody in town is sick," said Show Low Mayor Gene Kelley, his voice choking. "Everybody just feels like they've been socked in the gut."

Kelley recalled those agonizing meetings last June, when town officials and firefighters confronted an advancing 300-foot wall of flame. It was only a matter of hours, experts predicted, before Show Low was gone. "They were absolutely forecasting an over-burn for us," Kelley said.

The room buzzed with adrenaline, Kelley remembered, and a desperate debate broke out. How to make one last stand? Who should make it? Which crew was the bravest and toughest?

Everyone agreed: Lupe's team of Apache Hot Shots was the best.

So Lupe devised a plan. He stationed his men and bulldozers along a five-mile stretch west of Highway 60 and ordered them to start a new fire. He sensed a change in the wind, he said, a change that might offer a fleeting opportunity. If the wind blew just right, he believed, the new fire would rush back into the advancing one and slow its progress.

No one gave the plan a chance. But Lupe confidently told his men precisely where and when to start the fire, as if he knew what the wind would do.

Within hours, Lupe had led the first victory in the ultimately successful battle to save this 133-year-old town and its hundreds of buildings and businesses. The story of how he did it has been told and retold in these mountains ever since. But Saturday, that story took its first step toward becoming legend.

Jim Paxon, a retired firefighter who emceed the fire commemoration fair, said the praise heaped on Lupe never fazed him. He brushed off accolades like ash from his wide shoulders.

"Rick really shied away from publicity," Paxon said. "I forced it. I told people what Rick did."

As growing numbers of residents learned about Lupe's heroics and tried to thank him, he became flustered.

I was just protecting my land, he often told fellow Apaches.

I was just doing my job, he often told those outside his tribe.

Last month, Lupe was checking on a "prescribed burn," a fire purposely set by firefighters to thin out overgrown forest. No one knows exactly what happened, but Paxon believes Lupe was caught in a "microburst." The winds, notoriously volatile in this steep terrain, probably swelled the flames and spun them into a vortex that trapped Lupe.

"He did the right thing," Paxon said. "He got down on the ground, covered his face and head."

But the fire swept over him. Burned over 40% of his body, and with one lung collapsed, Lupe managed to stagger half a mile to get help. A helicopter flew him to a Phoenix burn center, where doctors took hope from the fact that he was able to walk into the emergency room.

His injuries were so grave, however, that he was put into a medicated coma so doctors could treat his ravaged skin.

"I had the same kinds of burns," said Dallas Massey, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and a close friend of Lupe.

He rolled up his shirt sleeves to reveal uneven brown and tan patches on his arms, like farmland seen from an airplane: Skin grafts endured 34 years ago, after a fire Massey was fighting suddenly turned on him.

He was hospitalized two months. "Very difficult," he said. "The thing that pulled me through was that my mom and dad were there. Just knowing somebody was there made a lot of difference."

So Massey told Lupe's wife and three sons -- 10, 16 and 19 -- to stay at the hospital, keep talking to Lupe, even if he didn't respond. Show Low residents took up a collection, Kelley said, to help defray the family's travel and hotel expenses.

The family did as Massey said, haunting the hospital, and on Lupe's 43rd birthday they serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" and old Apache songs.

His vital signs instantly elevated.

Like his sons, the eldest of whom is studying to be a firefighter, children on the reservation looked up to Lupe. He had been raised from birth to become an elite firefighter, and no one knew more about the forest. He learned from his elders, Massey said, and from experience, and from simply loving the land.

Also, he was eager to share what he knew. A natural teacher, "he would never raise his voice to people," Massey said. "He'd correct people in the same way he'd correct his own kids."

"If someone on his crew faltered," Paxon said, "he'd work alongside them, encourage them, maybe pick them up. He wasn't up on a hill with his binoculars, telling everybody what to do."

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