Cowboys Let 'Em Burn Before The Feds Stepped In



Anybody talking about forest fires these days?

In times before the Federal government instituted a policy of extinguishing all forest fires, and allowed the undergrowth to multiply, Rim country forests looked very different than today. Seasonal fires raced through them, burning ground cover and thinning out spaces between the older trees. Tree ring studies reveal vast Arizona fires burning millions of acres during the 19th century, as often as twice a decade.

Military detachments fighting the Indian War in this area reported a "park like" appearance to the forest. The huge trees had open spaces between them where grasses and wildflowers flourished. When lightening did start fires, the dead grasses and brush burned off with flames 1 to 3 feet high. With ground fuels so regularly consumed, fire had no opportunity to "climb the ladder" into the crowns of the trees. Such fires were far different and less intense than today's infernos that have flames 200 feet high raging through the crowns of trees.

By the 1890s, so many sheep and cattle had been brought into the Rim country and Tonto Basin they ate all the grasses and encouraged the growth of chaparral and brush. By the time the Forest Service was established in 1905 to control this overgrazing, a policy of putting out fires was also in place to protect the increasing population encroaching on the land. The die was cast for the "harvest" we reap today, especially now that the elements of drought and large numbers of people have been added to the explosive mix.

In a May 21, 1971 letter Rim country cowboy Slim Ellison wrote to retired forest ranger Fred Croxen, and complained, "If you hadn't over-protected so long (the forest) wouldn't need (help) now. How did that big forest grow from the Grand Canyon over to New Mexico without you Smokey Bears herdin' it? My granddad (Jesse Ellison) kept the juniper down by fire. Now look at it. It's got all the open country covered and grass gone."

In another letter to Croxen (June 30, 1971), Ellison reports an 8-square mile fire on the White Mountain Reservation (near Ellison's Q Ranch) "that's been ready to happen since 1929. Boy, I knew after they stopped the Injuns from burning and went to over-protecting it they really had fuel to crown out come summer."

He said he had a picture taken in 1898 near Grasshopper on the reservation showing smoke from the annual Indian burn off. They would burn in June, knowing the July rains would put out the fire. They would tie a burning tree branch to a horses tail and send the horse through the forest to light the groundcover. He said as he watched the Carizzo fire on TV, "Hearing them wail about the terrible loss, well, sez I, it's your own damn fault."

Ellison went on to condemn the government's policy of protecting the forest from fire.

"The Great Brains in D.C. have been over-protecting and afraid for scare of fire. Now look what J. Q. Public will have to pay, and most of that stuff wasn't good, so steep and rough it couldn't be got at. Now they'll seed it with foreign grass. (If they left it), in a few years, the old bull grass would be back and fresh browse. I think they're twisted. Now it will take 400 years to grow back."

Now that we have learned our lessons the hard way, we stand amazed at the effectiveness of the thousands of firefighters who put down the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. We are grateful for the miracle that none of them was killed in this massive and treacherous operation.

As short a time ago as the 1930s, fighting a fire before it took off and consumed Payson was something of an individual operation. Clyde Moose was ranger here then, and a report came in of a fire in the Mazatzals. No trail crew was available, and Clyde's partner Ed Fuel was out of town.

Clyde loaded his horse and drove to the Bar-T-Bar ranch at Deer Creek, where he began his ride up the mountain. The trail became too difficult for the horse, so the ranger tied it and hiked on foot carrying his tools. It was half a mile to the fire, where lightning had struck a tree setting the pine needles on fire that spread to dead wood and brush.

After working around the parameter Clyde went back to care for his horse, walking it a mile to Pigeon Spring for water. He then returned to the fire line, and spent the night putting out embers. He hoped a bear would not come by and cause the horse to break loose.

With mixed emotions, the ranger endured a heavy rainstorm that came up in the night, causing his wet body to shiver as he put out more blowing embers.

While working the fire line, he heard a bear running down the side of the hill. As it came on him he swung in the dark with his shovel, but his shovel only skimmed over a rock that was rolling down the mountain. "Anyway, it gave me a scare," he reported. "I have to admit I was a little spooky up there alone anyway."

"Alone" is a tough way to fight a forest fire, but by 3:30 in the morning, he had it out, the moon had appeared to give light, and Ranger Moose got back for breakfast with the cowboys at the Bar-T-Bar.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.