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AZ fire leaves long-term burden

BY RACHEL CLARK | SHOW LOW, Ariz. | September 23, 2002

"We were scared, there's no question."

—Roger Knosker

There was a wall of flame facing firefighters battling to protect a small boarding school near Show Low, Ariz.

The Rodeo-Chedeski fire had grown into the fourth-largest fire in American history, and the flames near the school were just too tough to contain. Fire burned hundreds of feet in the air, smoke plumes reached almost 30,000 feet, embers the size of soccer balls shot out from the flames.

As the blaze crept around the edges of the 90-acre school -- forming a horseshoe shape -- the firefighters had to retreat to save their lives.

"It was more impressive than any disaster movie you've seen," said Roger Knosker, director of the American Indian Christian Mission boarding school. "It's pretty much an attention getter. We were scared, there's no question."

But the only things destroyed on the school ground were trees -- lots of trees, but no buildings.

"I don't know why people should be so stunned when they see a miracle, but it's just stunned me," said Director Roger Knosker. "The fire chief said 'you people must have been praying.' We were very fortunate ... the fire came within a few feet of the girls' dormitory, cafeteria and staff housing."

In all, more than 450 homes were destroyed by the blaze. Parts of the Navajo, Apache, Coconino and Gila counties and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation lost homes, trees and land to the 468,000-acre fire.

Since the American Indian Christian Mission was spared, they've lent a hand to help their neighbors.

"There were over 100 homes around the mission that were burned to the ground," Knosker said. "As we had been spared from the fire, we felt it was an affirmation from God that He had things we should and were able to do. Part of that was to help out our neighbors, some of whom had no insurance, and some had limited insurance."

The school sent a plea to its supporting churches, and focused some of their response on five families who had lost everything.

"One family was living in a tent in the mud on what was left of their home," Knosker said. "We were able to provide them with financial support. We were able to give some gifts like that to our neighbors. We felt it was something we needed to do."

Members of the Calvary Baptist Church in Show Low also saw the fire as an opportunity to reach out to their neighbors. In addition to providing water, Gatorade and Visine to rescue workers and law enforcement professionals, the church offered 1,000 special 9/11 editions of the New Testament and Psalms.

"One firefighter said, 'there's no firefighter without faith in God,'" said the Rev. Stephen Hair. "And they all gladly received it. One guy said 'it's been really neat, one of our police officers said his supervisor was really proud of that and show it off and carries it with him.'"

A nursery next to the church also needed help. Since Show Low was evacuated for an extended period of time, workers there couldn't water their plants and many died. So church members gave the struggling business a financial gift to boost their inventory.

"They lost 60 percent of their inventory due to the lack of water," Hair said. "The insurance won't cover it because they consider it an act of government, not an act of God."

But even though the flames of the fire have been out for some time, church members continue to help people rebuild their homes.

"We're now helping with equipment rentals like backhoes to do some final work on family homes," Hair said.

According to Hair, the fire brought the community closer to God and united members of different congregations.

"Being a rural community with a strong Mormon contingency as well as other different evangelical groups, as a whole, it pushed them toward God."

But the environmental and economical effect the fire has had on the communities in that part of Arizona has been devastating.

"It's created a serious impact on the economy, especially for the tribes on the reservation that harvest wood," Hair said. "A lot of them are out of work as a result of the fire."

In spite of the hard road residents are facing, Hair said life is continuing.

"There's a lot of wholesale erosion - that's the negative - on the positive, also because of the fire, there's a tremendous growth, quite a bit of rain, and things just look beautiful in terms of green."

Other agencies that responded to the fire include: the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, FEMA, U.S. Dept. of Labor, U.S. Small Business Administration, and several Arizona churches, community groups and businesses.

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