Defiant Firefighters Snub Feds
The Arizona Republic, July 14, 2002
CLAY SPRINGS, Ariz. – This is a story about a town that felt it had to break the law to save itself.
At the height of the “Rodeo-Chediski” fire, when the destruction of the town seemed imminent, local members of the Pinedale-Clay Springs Volunteer Fire Department disobeyed federal fire commanders and made a stand in their back yard. They slipped past Department of Public Safety roadblocks and fought the fire with bulldozers, chainsaws and hoses, in direct defiance of an order to retreat.
The 26 “Clay Springs Renegades,” as they came to be known, plowed seven miles of unauthorized firebreaks through National Forest land, deputizing anybody in town who knew how to use heavy equipment. Several heated arguments and near-fistfights with federal officials failed to change their minds. By the fire’s end, only three houses had been lost in Clay Springs. Nobody was injured.
For many in this high plateau town, it was more than a firefight, it was a classic rural Western story writ large. The successful wildcat effort seemed to highlight the strength and ingenuity of the American commoner against the forces of nature and bureaucracy. The Clay Springs rebellion also emerged out of an Arizona frontier culture that prizes local initiative and has long viewed federal land management policies with suspicion.
But the Southwest Incident Management Team, the federal task force charged with fighting the fire, is not so sure that what happened in Clay Springs was anything heroic. Officials say the rebellion endangered public safety and created disorganization in what should have been a comprehensive tactical response. “In an emergency situation, it can’t be a democracy,” said Roy Hall, operations chief of the incident management team. “Somebody’s got to be in charge. And true heroism comes through standing together. This little community tried to maintain its identity to a fault, to a detriment.”
Hall compared the renegade effort to a surgeon trying to operate on a spouse. Fighting to save one’s hometown creates emotional pressure that can only cloud judgment and prudence, he said.
The people in Clay Springs are just as convinced that they did the right thing. This is a dirt-street town of 149 people, a single general store and a post office the size of a tool shed; a place without a city government where the Volunteer Fire Department comes second only to the local Mormon church as the glue that holds the community together.
“I’m sure we did everything against their rules, but our homes are safe,” said Coman Garvin, a backhoe operator who emerged as an unofficial leader during the crisis. Directly behind his hand-built log house is a 50-foot-wide gash in the pine trees that he plowed himself with a borrowed bulldozer. He worked through the night, fueled by adrenaline and Coca-Cola. His knowledge of how to fight fire came mainly from a single community college course.
The unauthorized firebreak lies on National Forest property, and Garvin thinks he could eventually get into trouble for it. But the Rodeo-Chediski fire came to within two-thirds of a mile from this spot and Garvin said he was morally, if not legally, justified in trying to keep it from spreading. Besides, Garvin said, it doesn’t look nearly as bad as a ridge north of town, where almost all the trees were shaved away. That place is now known as “Mohawk Hill,” for its resemblance to a punk rock hairstyle.
“I’m going to take full responsibility for anything that was done,” he said. “If I get thrown in jail, I’m still going to think I did the right thing.”
The Clay Springs rebellion began on the afternoon of June 20 when the fire was 2 days old and leaping over Arizona 260.
Several members of the Pinedale-Clay Springs Volunteer Fire Department began to object to an order from the incident command team to give up active structure protection. Too dangerous, they said. After a bitter argument on the side of the highway, volunteers began to drift back into the fire zone, with a Navajo County sheriff’s deputy uncertain if he had the authority to stop them.
The night of June 20, operations chief Buck Wickham briefed the rest of the incident command leadership on the growing political problem. “The people in Clay Springs are fighting the fire in T-shirts and tennis shoes,” he said at the meeting. “We’re trying to rein them in. They’re trying to run a dozer line up there. They’re running chainsaws in the dark without headlamps. They’re not working with us. We need to do something to get them working with us.”
Some Clay Springs residents have freely confessed that they dodged roadblocks on Arizona 260 to get into town to fight the fire. Dirt roads crisscross the Mogollon Rim, and it isn’t hard for locals to travel 50 miles in any direction without ever touching pavement.
Deliberately avoiding a roadblock could be classified as trespassing or failure to obey a lawful order, said Steve Volden, a state DPS spokesman. “From a law enforcement perspective, that person has committed a crime,” he said.
John Lovingood is one who acknowledges slipping past the police barricades. He is not a firefighter, but he got deputized on the spot and used his underground digging equipment through the night to build firebreaks. “They told us to leave and let our homes burn,” he said. “We told them we were going to stay and fight.”
Fire management officials have a name for what happened in Clay Springs: “freelancing.” It refers to any person or organization who tries to fight a fire outside the command structure. Experts consider it dangerous, and many volunteer departments have policies against it.
“If you’re not a part of the system, then who are you helping?” said David Halstead, an official with the Florida Division of Emergency Management and an expert in fire command structures. “You become a burden.”
Volunteer departments focus mainly on structure fires and can find themselves quickly in over their heads in a massive wildfire, said Brian Johnson, assistant executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “It’s no different from the military,” he said. “If they put themselves in a position that disregards an order and they get themselves in jeopardy, it now requires the incident command to stop what they’re doing and redeploy . . . to save the freelancers. And the rescuers may get injured or die.”
Two years ago, New Mexico refused to reimburse several small-town fire departments that “self-dispatched” to the “Cerro Grande” fire, which burned Los Alamos. No one in the wildcat units was injured, but officials said the people endangered public safety by leaving their home jurisdictions unprotected.
Chief Sid Howard of the Pinedale-Clay Springs Volunteer Fire Department makes no apologies for his actions, including the hurried recruitment of half-a-dozen untrained citizens in the heat of battle.
“I can do whatever I have to protect my fire district,” he said. “That’s what the laws of the state of Arizona say.”
Al Kratz would agree. He credits the renegades with saving his house on the edge of town: “Anybody with common sense can fight a fire.”
It appears that no prosecutions or reprimands will come from the incident at Clay Springs. Federal officials said any action would have to come from local authorities. A Navajo County sheriff’s official said charges won’t be pressed for the roadblock running. “Even if they snuck back in, the violation of the law is a moot point as long as they were assisting the fire department,” Cmdr. Larry Dunagan said.
Jim Clawson, a law enforcement official with the U.S. Forest Service, said he sympathized with the renegades but believed they acted out of a misperception that the federal incident management team was too cavalier about letting houses burn down.
“I’m sorry they felt we didn’t do everything possible, but we did,” he said. “They have to understand we had a job to do and that was put the fire out.”