Book Attempts To Make Sense Of Rodeo-Chediski

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Just over five years ago, 4,500 wildland firefighters gritted their teeth with determination, 40,000 evacuees held their breath and the world watched, shaking its head in awed silence.

One man spoke.

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Jim Paxon, the fire information officer for the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, visits with KCMA's Cindy Kofile on her radio show Friday. Paxon stopped in Payson en route to Prescott, where he held book signings for his new book, "The Monster Reared His Ugly Head," about the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

Jim Paxon's down-to-earth attitude and always truthful words were just what the situation called for and just what the thousands affected by this monster of a fire, called the Rodeo-Chediski, needed to hear.

For the five-year anniversary of Arizona's biggest, most costly and most damaging wildfire, Paxon was determined to compose a book worthy of capturing the fire's impact.

"The Monster Reared His Ugly Head" is the factual tale of the fire from Paxon's experience as the Fire Information Officer -- a role that garnered him widespread fame and the nickname, "The Fire Guy."

Paxon said he didn't really want to write a book about the fire. But as the "face of the fire" and after experiencing firsthand the devastation, he set out to make sense of the circumstances thrust upon him and several mountain communities by Mother Nature's hand.

"People would come to me and want me to tell them what really happened on the fire," he said. "The focus of the book is to heal, inform and to prepare us for what's next. It's a healing book, because there's still so much raw emotion. There is a great need for some closure."

Paxon said that the Rodeo-Chediski Fire was unlike anything he experienced in his 33-plus-year career with the U.S. Forest Service.

"None of us had ever seen anything like it," he said. "It was kinda like the end of the world.

"You cannot imagine the power and grandeur and the terror of 300 to 1,000-foot flames and a six-mile-wide fire front moving through the forest. I've never seen anything as awe-striking and awesome as this fire was."

Paxon gained recognition for his upfront approach to the daily reports of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. In a time of despair for many people in the affected communities, Paxon offered clarity and hope.

"I don't think you can sugarcoat anything when it's bad," he said. "People trusted me to tell them what was happening, even if it was bad. And they appreciated my kind of down-home and my becoming a part of them."

Proof that Paxon lives by the principles he displayed during the fire is evidenced by his purchase of a home in Show Low, shortly after the fire's wake. Paxon said he felt connected to the town that very nearly experienced its end.

"We kept being drawn back," he said of his visits to the area to give speeches to developers and homeowners associations about how to live with fire danger.

Since retiring from the Forest Service in 2003 and spending more than a year researching and writing his book, Paxon also works with developers to thin land before new homes are built in forest areas. He teaches at the Arizona Wildfire Academy, which he helped establish.

Paxon said his goal is to enlighten everyone about wildfire.

"I have this mission to get the word out," he said. "I'll talk to anyone who will talk to me about (being) firewise."

More than 1,500 copies of his book have already sold in the six weeks since its publication.

Paxon's book includes an almost minute-by-minute account of the events during the fire, as well as a "reflection" section, where he discusses what still needs to be done to prevent another fire like the Rodeo-Chediski.

Paxon said more than 100 communities in Arizona are at risk from wildfire.

"We better be doing some things different just pretty quick," he said. "The only way to live in peace in the forest is to copy Mother Nature. If she

wants to have fire out here every five to seven years, we need to do the same thing. We need to respect her management.

"Fire's become the enemy and it really shouldn't be. Fire's as natural as sunshine, rain and fresh air."

"The Monster Reared His Ugly Head" is available at Arizona Spectrum Wireless or can be ordered from Paxon's Web site www.paxonthefireguy.com.

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