A Pioneering Approach To Fires



A copy of this letter from Walter L. Haught, dated July 14, 1956, was saved by his granddaughter, Tommie Cline Martin. The letter was written to Bert Slater, then editor of the Payson Roundup.

Walter's views were typical of the Rim country folks 50 years ago. He speaks here for all the ranchers, bootleggers, sawmill men, prospectors and men of common sense of his time. Not that anyone listened to him, or to them, but the Forest Service can't say that they weren't warned. I left the letter just as Walter wrote it not doctorin' his lingo or spellin'.


Walter L Haught

The letter appears in the second chapter of my book "Looking Through the Smoke," which has been accepted as evidence by the U. S. House Resource Committee on Forest Health.

I give you, Walter Haught:

Dear Bert:

I have been reading the assorted hogwash in the letters to "ye editor"; personal views of different officials and knowing individuals, and decided to chip in with my two bits worth.

The latest one to raise my dander was one that in part said (quote) "Anyone who has seen the complete destruction by fire of the south slopes of the Pinal Mountains will surely vote to back the Forest Service in their action." Well sir, I kind of allow that I was roamin' around these parts when the writer of that article was wearing three cornered underwear, and from where I sit, it appears, that after viewing such a sorrowful sight, the first thought of a reasoning adult would be; "what caused it?" Well, it wasn't the old timers or it would have burned 75 or a hundred years ago. It sure as shootin' wasn't the Indians, or it would have been burned to a cinder at least a 1000 years back. It wasn't the fault of the lightning, without it had help, because it has been whackin' the side of that old mountain, times without number for the last few millions of years without much success; so this feeble old brain of mine, after groping all around the idea finally fastened on to a point that it just won't shake loose from. And that is, that it had to be due in part, at least, to a contributing cause somewhat more recent. And sir, I will give you now my line of reasoning. As follows:

What do you use to start a fire outside? Why, little sticks; brush! That is the word, mark it well BRUSH. Does one bush burn hotter than two bushes? No, to get a really hot fire you need a lot of brush, and man have they got it in that Pinal County. In fact, as I see it, the Forest Service has been studiously cultivating and protecting that brush for 35 years. And there is only one thing that I know of that is as certain as death, taxes, and grazing fees, and that is, if you keep accumulating brush it will burn, and the more brush the hotter the fire.

And now to go back a mite further, you see I was here in a small way before the Forest Service. Pretty small, I'll admit but here, bad as I hate to look back over that many years. And as early as 1901 I have camped around the head of Chevelon Canyon, Gentry Canyon, and a few other places around where they had the big fires last month that destroyed millions of feet of the best timber that was ever grown on God's green earth. At that time we camped wherever night overtook us, left when we got ready, and if any of the old timers had seen a feller covering up his fire, they would likely have mistook him for some mis-guided member of the cat family, or at least "tetched." Why? Well, I guess because there was no reason for it. If the wind came up and scattered the coals, it would just naturally go out on its own hook, probably for lack of sufficient kindlin', since at that time we didn't have a foot of needles and leaves on the ground, and in most of that country where you could see a rabbit 300 yards, the bush and pine thickets have taken over to where you couldn't see a bull now days if you had him by the tail. That just might have had something to do with it.

Anyhow, that fire cost I don't know how many thousands of dollars. I was told, but I had my shoes on and only kept track up to ten. But it was a sight of money and I hate to see it spent so lavish and useless. However, after the smoke cleared up a little so they could wipe their eyes and look around a little, the boys noticed that they had stopped her at the edge of the desert; (contained, I believe is the word they used), and were cheered up somewhat. Didn't surprise me though. I have noticed for the last few years that they almost always stop her, or maybe it is contain her, at the far side of the thicket, but not very often before that.

I just wonder what will happen when it gets to be one big thicket. And boy, she's agrowin'. Which some calls to mind how glad I am that I haven't got my money and kids tied up in one of them summer homes that are springin' up around here in the midst of a thicket, especially when it is pointed out how careless us old fossils are with our matches and corn cob pipes, not to mention the city slickers, with them already rolled cigarettes. Which brings to mind; I know seven gents, that to settle and argument each dropped a cigarette butt into a bunch of dry foxtails. You know what happened? Nothin'. The losers paid up and went home. Still and all, I don't figure I want my shack next to or in the middle of a fire trap, and I would shore hate to see them little grand kids of mine hemmed in thataway.

It seems that most folks know that in town the way to keep down fire is to keep the trash gathered up and burned up, but as soon as they get outside the city limits they kind of loose track of those things. Well, I guess they don't learn nothin' about that in college, and I understand that's where you have to go before you start out to fight these fires and tell folks what to do about raising more brush, so I just don't know.

I ain't never been to college or nothin', but Bert, I do know enough that I wouldn't pick the day that every forest in the state was closed to all camping, humidity about 15%, and a 30 mile wind whistling, to set fire to the windward side of a thicket 10 miles across, with no equipment, no fire trail, no back fire and no hired help, when I only wanted to burn a hundred or so acres. I hear that is what happened a while back. But there is one bright flash in that smoky picture. I hear that they contained her on the other side of the mountain. You know what? I have been up that side prospecting, and had quite a little trouble restlin' up enough wood to bile a pot of coffee. Oh well, you can always go without coffee.

Now Bert, you might not see fit to print this. It is just the ramblin's of an old has been. I ain't never been to college or no place else much, but if that is the main requirement you have to have to help run a shebang like we got here, I'm mighty glad I was born back around the turn of the century when, if you could get enough book learnin' to read and write a little, and cipher some, you could likely go out and start a fire or maybe poor water on it without any instructions.

By the way, I put in the last four years prospecting for uranium. Looked like the thing to do. Put in a year gettin' my camp outfit together. Two years and a half huntin' Jackasses and six months hobnailing shoes, but I'll get out after it one of these days. In the mean time if you print this, save me a copy. I'll read it when I get back.

See you then.

Walter L. Haught

P. S. After battin' the notion around some, it appears to me that the thing to have done was to have turned this layout over to about a dozen Apache gals back about 35 years ago, and let them run it. They seem to have done a pretty fair job for the last four or five thousand years, and I figure that it must have been a lot cheaper, or it sure cost a heap of wampum. I got here right after the Indians gave it up, and there was a lot more timber grass and cattle than there is now, and a dollar would buy more than six bits worth of whiskey and stuff in them days.

P. P. S. On second thought them their Apache gals might not know how to contain a fire proper. They might just put it out or not let it get started to begin with. So let it go. It was just a thought anyhow.

W. L. H.

Rodeo Reunion

Git A Rope Publishing is hosting the First Annual Payson Rodeo Reunion on Saturday, Aug. 20 at the Tonto Apache Gym from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Everyone is welcome to come out and visit with the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls and get their "Rodeo 101" books signed by them. Nancy and Lynn Sheppard will be the guests of honor. There will be live country-western music, door prizes, and a good old-fashioned barbecue.

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