The Last Fire Season

Velasco directed battles against a thousand blazes on the Tonto

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Pat Velasco concluded a 36-year career with the U.S. Forest Service this week and set off to create a new life of consulting, recreation and perhaps politics.


He began his career "as a grunt -- a firefighter on the Douglas Ranger District," he said. He was promoted to fire management officer and served five years in Nogales.


"All of us has to have a Nogales in our life," he said.


But the majority of Velasco's 22-year career has been spent on the Tonto National Forest as fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District.


"This is where the action is," he said. "This is a great place."


Velasco turned 55 on Oct. 19, and according to the Forest Service's mandatory retirement program, it was time for him to leave.


"They want to keep a young aggressive force," he said.


Today (Friday) the retired fire management officer set off for Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, where he will be one of six bilingual Americans who will host a week-long regional fire-fighting course for more than 80 young firefighters in Mexico.


Anticipating fire behavior is his talent, he said.


"During the fire, I'm the fella they call in to tell them what the fire is going to do. I can be real accurate."


In between consulting and teaching, he plans to hunt, fish and fix up his Jeep, "Ole Blue."


He pointed to the personalized license plate on the front of his Jeep and said that says it all.


"The State of Arizona recognizes me as Big Pat," he said.


Big Pat may come in handy as a campaign slogan, he said.


"There are some people in the community who have talked town council, and even Mayor with me," he said. "I haven't made a decision."


Patrocinio Velasco was born in Douglas. When he first showed up in Payson, he said he was a novelty and a threat to woodcutters in the area.


"Some of the townsfolk (back in 1977) could not handle the thought of a Hispanic fire management officer," Velasco said. "The woodcutters were upset, because we were making cases against them."


The tensions prompted one citizen to try to yank Velasco out of his car and start a fight -- right on Main Street, he said. It was one of the first major law enforcement cases handled by the new town police department, he said.


"I felt a little bit of racism by some of the townspeople, but that disappeared years ago," he said. "We joke about it now."


But Velasco's best and worst memories of Payson stem from one event -- the Dude Fire of 1990.


"It was my nightmare fire," Velasco said. "The burning of homes, resources and the fatalities -- it was a real tragedy."


The walls of his office are adorned with photos and commendations from the Dude and other fires.


When asked what his fondest memory was, he pondered the question as he looked out the window of his office for one of the last times.


"My best memory? The community support and outpouring of gratitude following the Dude Fire," he said.


A picture of a banner that says "Thank you firefighters" in large red letters hangs on his wall. It was strung across the highway following the Dude Fire, which burned 27,000 acres, 75 structures, and claimed six lives. More pictures crowd the walls -- memories and mementos of 22 years of service.


Velasco has fought more than a thousand fires in this district that stretches from Rye to the south, the Mogollon Rim to the north, Colcord Estates to the east and the Mazatzal Mountains to the west. He is most proud of the people he works with and the community he works for.


"(I am proud of) the loyalty of the employees to the people of the district," he said. "I still love this community."


He has words of advice for his successor.


"Take care of the community. (It is made up of) wonderful people. Some of the things my neighbors did for me, they did because we were nice to them."


With so much in front of him, Velasco said he can't help but look back.


"I absolutely loved it and wish it was all in front of me, not behind me, but that can never be."

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