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Tribal Fire Chief Retires

January 8, 2014

After 5:00 PM, January 10, 2014, Tribal Fire Chief Paul D. Kuehl will not have to carry his portable radio with him any longer. By that time all of his department-issued equipment and vehicle will have been turned in and he will be officially retired.

In his resignation letter to Tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe dated October 8, 2013, Chief Kuehl wrote “after months of prayer and thoughtful consideration I have decided that it is time for me to retire my position as the Tribal Fire Chief as well as from the fire service. I would like to thank you and the White Mountain Apache Tribe for the opportunity to serve as the fire chief for more than twenty-one years and also as a volunteer firefighter for an additional eight years. It has truly been an honor and a privilege to do so.”

Kuehl started as a volunteer firefighter back in the late 1970s when the Fort Apache Agency allowed community members to assist the BIA fire department as volunteers. Effective October 1, 1988, the Agency Superintendent terminated the use of the community volunteers and declared that the BIA fire department was only for federal employees and only to protect federal property.

Several days after the community volunteers were locked out of the BIA Fire Station, Tribal Chairman Reno Johnson heard that a house burned to the ground in Seven Mile and that the BIA did not respond to the incident. He called for an emergency meeting with various BIA, IHS, WUSD #20 administrators, Tribal leaders, and the community volunteers. During this meeting it was decided that the Tribe would assume the Community Fire Protection Program from the BIA though a PL-638 Contract. Before the meeting was over Chairman Johnson appointed Kuehl to be the first fulltime Tribal Fire Chief. Arrangements were soon made to have Kuehl transferred from the Apache Service Station Manager position to the newly created Fire Chief position. He along with a very dedicated and hardworking group of community volunteers founded the White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue Department starting in what is now the BIA Maintenance Building behind the Fort Apache Agency.

For a jurisdiction of 2,600 square miles, the Tribal fire department has always been under-funded, under-staffed, under-equipped, and under-compensated. It has always been a struggle to not only maintain, but also to grow. While many have come and gone over the years, there has always been a very dedicated and hardworking group of certified firefighters, officers, and chief officers that persevered through the good times as well as the bad times. For this Kuehl has always been and will always be thankful.

Kuehl is also very thankful that in the history of the department there have not been any serious firefighter injuries or line-of-duty deaths. In closing, Kuehl stated: “The Lord has truly blessed us and protected us all these years while we served and protected our communities. May He continue to do so!”

Opportunity Knocks, Deputy Fire Chief Answers

January 7, 2014

"Opportunity only knocks once" as the proverb saying goes, and for one of our Deputy Fire Chiefs the door was answered. Deputy Fire Chief Jacob Brock will be leaving the White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue, with his resignation coming in after the announcement of Chief Paul D. Kuehl's retirement.

Chief Brock started his tenure with the Tribe in October 2007, coming from the Navajo Nation Fire Department. Being a Navajo from Tuba City, Chief Brock said his future plans was to eventually go home, but because of an ailing father and increasing home rental cost in the White Mountains, he just couldn't pass on the opportunity when a job was offered back home. Chief Brock was hired as the new Chief Operations Officer for a private ambulance company located in Tuba City and will work his last day with the Tribe on January 10, 2014.

Chief Brock's many accomplishments during his tenure include: serving as an instructor and coordinator for the department's fire academies, creating the organization's many standard operating procedures and minimum company standards, representing the organization in various committees with neighboring fire departments, being the web master for the fire department's web page, overseeing the Hon-Dah fire station and community, serving as a key player in the organization's strategic planning process, establishing a CPR/First Aid program and teaching over 500 people within the Tribe, and many more accomplishment. Deputy Chief J. Brock says “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve this community alongside the firefighters for the last 5 years. White Mountain Apache firefighters are highly skilled and well prepared and will continue to do a great job of protecting this community.”

It is the Assistant's Fire Chief's intent to hire a new Fire Chief and Deputy Fire Chief who will continue the initiatives and progress all these individuals have made. Until that time, members of the organization know they have a lot more on their plate until some of these responsibilities can be delegated.

Fallen Officer To Be Remembered Daily in Hon-Dah/McNary

June 19, 2013

When people now pass by the Hon Dah Public Safety Complex they will be reminded of our fallen Tribal Police Officer Tenney Gatewood Jr. That is because on May 28, 2013 during National Police Week, the Hon-Dah/McNary Public Safety Complex was re-dedicated to Officer Gatewood who was killed in the line of duty thirteen years ago. In addition to the re-dedication of the building, a memorial exists outside the building.

The memorial and name change will also help remind officers of the dangers they face on the streets, especially since they will pass it each time they travel on Highway 260 in the Hon-Dah/McNary communities or attend training at the public safety complex.

Officer Gatewood was shot and killed in the Slide Rock area on December 9, 1999 by robbery suspects. Officer Gatewood was responding to a burglary call at the Hawley Lake Store when he stopped a vehicle believed to be the suspects. It is reported that while handcuffing one of the suspects, a scuffled ensued and his handgun was taken away from him. The suspect then shot him, killing him instantly. Officer Gatewood had been with the White Mountain Apache Tribal Police Department for nine years.

The project was spear headed by the White Mountain Apache Tribal Police Department and supported by the Tribal Council of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Although Officer Tenney Gatewood Jr. has fallen, he will truly never be forgotten.

One Suspected Arsonist Arrested; Another Suspect Being Sought

June 10, 2013

A juvenile was taken into custody several hours after a fire was reported at the Cibecue Police Substation. The 17-year old male, a resident of Cibecue, was transported to the Navajo County Jail in Holbrook. It is possible that the suspect could face both Tribal and Federal charges.

The fire was reported at approximately 4:05 AM on Thursday, June 6. The double-wide trailer, owned by the WMAT Housing Authority, received substantial fire damage.

On Sunday, June 2, firefighters responded to a house fire at 10 N. Kessay St. in Whiteriver around 9:20 AM. The fire was contained to the bedroom where the fire was started. A suspect is being sought by both the BIA Law and Tribal Enforcement.

BIA and Tribal firefighters have responded to numerous human-caused fires recently. Two of these fires in East Fork, the Grindstone and Firebox Fires, were started within several hours of each other. Fortunately firefighters were able to contain these fires rather quickly. The Grindstone Fire burned approximately one acre and the Firebox Fire burned approximately two acres. These fires are also under investigation.

Joint investigations were conducted by BIA and Tribal Law Enforcement and Fire & Rescue fire investigators. Authorities are requesting assistance from the public. Anyone with information is urged to contact law enforcement, fire investigators, or 1-800-47-ARSON.

On Friday, June 7, BIA and Tribal firefighters responded to a fire in North Fork. This vegetation fire was the result of an illegal burn that the resident failed to control. The resident admitted to starting a “control burn” the prior evening without a valid Burn Permit. Tribal Police cited the resident for unlawful burning, a criminal offense.

Times Change...So Do Fires.

June 6, 2013

“Kids today are different than they were 20 years ago.” How many times have we heard something similar? Times do change as we have seen in our technology, human behaviors and YES even FIRES.

Thanks to the use of synthetic materials, the extra belongings cluttering our homes, and the way homes are built today, today’s fires burn faster and release more heat than ever before. The end result is rapid fire growth and development and the increase in fire entrapment and death.

Think of the sofa your grandmother’s house had 30 plus years ago. It was probably made of natural fibers and wood, probably cotton canvas or real leather with a solid pine wood frame. Your sofa today is much bigger, full of foam (polyurethane) to make it more comfortable, the outside fabric is probably a polyester/nylon blend or a fake leather, and the framing is particle board - wood chips or wood dust glued together. These products release more heat and produce different chemicals when burned than your grandmother’s couch.

If you compare the furnishing from the past and from today, you will find how differently they are made. Plastics have invaded your home from your dishwear to the television set to the toys on the floor. Because of plastics and other synthetics, our homes have become stuffed with flammable solid material. The sheer volume of these goods helps contribute to rapid fire growth and development when a fire strikes.

In the 1970s, a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study found that people had 17 minutes to escape a fire after their smoke alarm goes off. But when the institute repeated the study in 2004, it found that the escape window had shrunk to just three (3) minutes.

Why the change? During the past 50 years we have introduced more synthetics into the home thus increasing the fuel loading. Home designs have changed to open floor plans. The new trend of energy efficiency has made homes better sealed to keep the heat in during the winter and the cool in during the summer. A fire that occurs inside a house built today will burn faster and release more heat. The home, because of its design, will retain that heat. This contributes to a rapid build-up of heat that in turn contributes to the rapid fire growth and development of the rest of the furnishing. This is why the time to escape has decreased so dramatically.

An experiment was conducted by Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) with two side by side living room fires (see video). The purpose was to understand the difference between modern and legacy (older style) furnishings. The rooms measured 12 ft by 12 ft, with an 8 ft ceiling and had an 8 ft wide by 7 ft tall opening on the front wall. Both rooms contained similar amounts of like furnishings. Both rooms were ignited by placing a lit stick candle on the right side of the sofa. The fires were allowed to grow until flashover. The modern room transitioned to flashover in 3 minutes and 30 seconds and the legacy room at 29 minutes and 30 seconds.

So how do you protect yourself in your home? Your first line of defense is to ideally have a working smoke detector in each room of your home. If a fire breaks out in your home, even if the smoke alarm alerts you, don't count on more than three minutes to escape. If your smoke detector went off, you could already be one to two minutes behind.

Secondly, practice an escape plan with your family. This may sound corny but studies have shown that actually doing it versus just talking about it is a better retention tool for all ages. Teach your children through actual simulation what to do when they hear the smoke detector go off and where to meet outside the home.

Thirdly, understand that the longer the fire goes undetected and unreported the potential for loss of lives and property greatly increases. If there is a fire, report it immediately by calling 9-1-1. There is no time to spare.

The goal of the White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue Department is to save lives and property, especially from fires. However, due to limited funding we only have three fire stations with only three firefighters on duty at each station; yet we cover 2,600 square miles. Our response times can vary between several minutes to over thirty minutes. We can only do so much with our limited resources.

You can make the difference. Be fire safe. Be sure you have an adequate number of working smoke detectors in your home. Practice home fire drills with your entire family. Maintain your yards and property and create a safety zone around your home.

We are here to help you prevent fires. We can provide smoke detectors and a training program for you and your family. Please contact any one of our fire stations for more information and be sure to check out the links on our website. Remember, you are ultimately responsible for your family and home. Be proactive. Make your home, your property, and your family fire safe.

Tribal Firefighters Participate in USAF’s Military Training

April 15, 2013

If you happened to be in the Salt River Canyon this past Saturday afternoon you may have been surprised to see two Ch-47 Chinook twin-turbine, tandem-rotor, heavy-lift transport helicopters belonging to the Royal Singapore Air Force as well as several United States Marines and numerous Air Force combat search and rescue (CSAR) personnel.

These military resources were only a few of the many international resources participating in Resolute Angel 13 exercises taking place at numerous locations throughout Arizona and New Mexico. Resolute Angel 13 is the first of two phases of the United States Air Force’s Angel Thunder Exercises. The second phase began on Monday which included war time scenarios.

Russ Dodge of the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) was the local coordinator. He worked with the USAF in the planning of the Salt River Canyon scenario and provided local, certified swiftwater rescue personnel to act as the victims and to assist in the search and rescue activities. These rescuers were from AZ DPS, Maricopa County Sherriff’s Office, WMAT, and other agencies. Deputy Fire Chief Leon I. Moody, Captain Darwin Aday, and Firefighter Tia Ethelbah, all certified swift-water rescue technicians participated in the exercise. Tribal Department of Public Safety Rangers provided security to the area, keeping the public and on-lookers out of harm’s way. The overall scenario was that an earthquake occurred in the AZ-NM area that resulted in numerous local disasters and other emergencies. As a result of the “earthquake” there was flash flooding in Salt River Canyon and the Salt River Canyon Bridge was destroyed. Six river rafters were reported missing. Since local resources were overwhelmed the local officials requested specialized federal assistance from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson.

According to a USAF brief, Angel Thunder is a locally originated and produced event which has become the world’s largest and most dynamic personnel recovery exercise designed to provide state of the art rescue training to U.S. Military, Federal Government Agencies, Local Communities, and Allied Nations.

Resolute Angel 13 serves as a training venue for Federal, State and Local Community Emergency Management integration on Multi State Civil SAR Disaster operations in Arizona and New Mexico. The purpose of this training is to ensure that the federal government, states and local communities will be able to work together successfully in the event of a Catastrophic Incident Search & Rescue Operation (CISR) when local response capabilities are overwhelmed and limited and/or specialized federal assistance is required.

After the Fires: Investigations and Interventions Continue

April 12, 2013

Recent fires throughout the Reservation continue to keep firefighters, fire investigators, and fire prevention personnel busy. Within the last several weeks firefighters responded to nine fires that were intentionally started. These included six structure fires, a vegetation fire, and two debris fires.

Due to the thorough work of the department’s fire investigators a 21-year old male is facing arson charges for his alleged involvement with three separate fires involving an occupied home, a vacant house, and vegetation that occurred on March 30 in Hon Dah Homesites.

The most recent fire of suspicious origin occurred Sunday evening involving a storage shed at Cibecue Community School. There were three fires on April 4. These include structure fires in East Fork and near Riverside Park, and a debris fire on Kessay Drive in Whiteriver. In addition to these fires Tribal and federal investigators are actively working the following fires that occurred in Whiteriver: the North Fork Store fire (1/12/13), : a house fire on S. Chief Avenue (1/9/13), a house fire on N. Falcon Avenue (11/28/12), a trailer fire on W. Balsam Avenue (11/11/12), a house fire in Dark Shadows (10/4/12), a trailer fire on N. Tenijieth Avenue (6/28/12), a house fire on W. Mulberry Street (6/6/12), and multiple vegetation fires. Numerous arson cases in Cibecue also remain open. Fire officials encourage everyone with information regarding any fires to contact the fire department by calling 338-1701 or by calling 1-800-47-ARSON.

The White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue Department fire investigators, Ralph Mangan and Dusty Whiting, work in conjunction with the BIA Criminal Investigation Unit and the Tribal Police and Prosecution Departments. When applicable they also have access to the FBI and ATF to assist in their investigations. The Tribal investigators are also members of the Northeastern Arizona Fire Investigation Task Force and are available to assist in fire investigations throughout the region.

Investigator Mangan stated that “the community needs to be aware that the Tribe now has a system in place to fully investigate and prosecute acts involving intentionally and negligently set fires. As fire investigators, fire prevention is our ultimate goal. If people know that fires are being aggressively investigated and that there will be consequences for their actions maybe they will think twice about starting a fire."

The partners within the WMAT-BIA Youth Fire Starter Intervention Coalition include representatives from the Tribal Police, Fire, and Prosecution Departments, the Tribal Court and Social Services, and the BIA Fire Management and Criminal Investigation Departments. Children who have started fires are referred to this Coalition. Firefighter Wilberta Walker and Candy Lupe, the BIA Fire Prevention Officer are currently working with three children and their families.

Based upon the assessments of the children and their parents educational plans for the entire family are developed. The educational plans are age specific and deal with fire safety and injury prevention topics. Older children may also be assigned community service projects. Those who fail to complete the educational hours and community service projects are referred to the Juvenile Prosecutor and Social Services. These agencies then decide whether to prosecute the children and/or their parents in Tribal Court.

Three people were convicted in Tribal Court of starting the 2012 fire of an occupied home in Knotts Landing. These three could eventually face federal charges.

Several years ago two serial arsonists were convicted in Federal Court and are serving time in prison. One of these cases involved the arson fires of an abandoned house on N. 4th Street and the Whiteriver’s Women’s Wellness Clinic and the other case involved numerous fires that occurred in the vicinity of Balsam Ave.

Fire Department’s Response to Mandatory Budget Cuts and RIFs

February 28, 2013

The entire world continues to experience serious financial issues. If your family spends more than it is earning it has a problem. Our federal and tribal governments are also experiencing this same dilema. The expenditures are much greater than the revenue. The difference between these two governments is that the Tribal government has now taken some very drastic steps in its attempts to turn things around financially.

One of these steps included some major reorganizational changes. The Division of Public Safety now includes the Tribal Police and Fire Departments, Emergency Medical Service, Game & Fish Rangers, and the Departments of Corrections, and Emergency Management.

Another step included the passing of Tribal Resolution 02-2013-035 that mandated major budget cuts and reductions in force (RIF). The Fire Department’s proposed FY 12-13 Budget was cut by $800,000. In order to absorb these cuts the chief officers had to make some very difficult decisions that included both budget cuts and RIFs. This first round of RIFs included two fulltime firefighters, four reserve firefighters, and two out of three office staff (receptionist and accounts payable clerk). Three vacant Firefighter/EMT positions were also lost. While this sounds bad, it gets worse. Tribal program directors have been informed that more cuts, perhaps up to 20%, will be required in FY 13-14 beginning May 1, 2013.

These cuts and RIFs will have profound effects on the fire department, both in admininistration and operations. As a result of losing two-thirds of the office staff, the Fire Administration Office’s regular business hours have been reduced; the office is now open from 9:00 AM to 12:00 and 1:00 to 4:00 PM. However, there may be times that the office will be closed during these hours as well due to staffing issues.

Losing a total of five fulltime firefighter positions has reduced our duty crews from four to three firefighters per shift per stations. Many larger fire departments across the nation have been required to do the same. However, larger departments have mulitiple stations throughout their cities and suburbs that can send additional resources within minutes. Our stations are twenty and fifty miles away from the closest station. Emergency operations, regardless of the type (crashes, fires, rescues, etc.) may be greatly prolonged due the limited manpower and the distances the other resources must travel. Such extended times may have disasterous results.

Due to the finanical issues the department has experienced difficulties in maintaining, purchasing, replacing, and/or reparing equipment and vehicles for several years already. These additional budget cut will only compound these problems.

So what does this mean to our community members? Besides realizing that the fire department may not be able to perform at the same level as before, community members should do everything possible to ensure that their homes and properties are fire safe. They need to have and maintain an adequate number of smoke detectors in their homes. They need to make sure they maintain their wood stoves, kitchen stoves, furnaces, and water heaters properly. They need to properly and safely dispose of the ashes from their wood stove. Smokers need to dispose of their cigarette butts safely. They need to be ‘fire wise” when it comes to keeping their yards and maintaining a “safe zone” for their homes. They need to have and maintain at least one fire extinguisher in their homes and know how to operate them safely. They need to teach their children about fire safety and keep matches and lighters out of the reach of their children. They need to refrain from purchasing fire works.

Remember that fireworks are illegal to own, transport, store, and/or use.

Communitiy members can also keep their livestock (horses, cattle, etc.) fenced in and off the roadways. They can make sure that all the occupants in their vehicles are properly restrained. They can make sure their vehicles area in safe operating condition. They can refrain from driving impaired. They can report drivers that are driving impaired. They can form neighborhood watches and report all pertinent information regarding criminal acts and arson to the police and/or call 1-800-47-ARSON. Remember: it takes everyone within our communities to keep our communties safe. Are you doing your part?

In September of 1988 the BIA made the decision to no longer allow the local volunteer firefighters to utilize the BIA fire station, equipment, and fire trucks for non-federally owned property effective October 1, 1988. No action was taken by the Tribal leaders to provide for fire protection for the thousands of homes, numerous schools, churches, business, and Tribal buildings. Within a few days into October there was a report of a house on fire in Seven Mile. Volunteer firefighters responded in their personally owned vehicles without any personal protective equipment (PPE), radios, firefighting equipment, or firetrucks. Due to the high winds they threw large rocks at the exterior walls in order to make sure they fell back into the burning house, thus preventing the fire from spreading into the dry grass and brush. They did the best they could with what they had. They may have been fighting fire “cave man” style that day and hopefully it won’t come to that again.

Two days later, on October 5, 1988, the Tribal Chairman called a special meeting including representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Services, Whiteriver Unified School District, Tribal Housing Authority, and a few volunteer firefighters. Before the meeting was over a decision was made to establish a Tribal fire department and to hire a fulltime fire chief. Over the next twenty-five years the department slowly grew from that one employee to almost sixty employees that included thirty-three fulltime firefighters manning three fire stations. The goal to eventually strengthen our existing operations and to establish additional stations throughout the reservation will be delayed even longer.

The chief officers understand the need for such drastic financial cuts for the Tribe. They understand that everyone has to do their fair share. They hope these actions will help mitigate the Tribe’s financial situation and that in the future they will be able to regain staffing to meet the minimal national standards.

The chief officers also realize that they and their entire staff, despite their decreasing numbers, have their work cut out for them. Their job is to serve and protect the public to the best of their ability with whatever means they have. The fire department and the community members need to step up to the task and work together for the safety and wellbeing of everyone.

North Fork Store Damaged by Fire and Explosion

January 20, 2013

Firefighters were dispatched to the North Fork Store at approximately 1:38 AM early Saturday morning on January 12th. They arrived seven minutes later and found the storage shed behind the store fully involved. The fire apparently caused a propane explosion in the store’s attic. There was minimal fire damage to the store’s interior, but the blast itself caused substantial damage. Fortunately no one was injured by the fire or the blast.

The fire spread along the eaves and into the soffit of the store’s roof. The explosion occurred shortly after the firefighters began their fire attack. Once the external fire was knocked down firefighters made entry and extinguished a small fire that penetrated the exterior wall into the attic space.

Nine firefighters with two fire engines, one each from Whiteriver and Hon Dah, responded to the fire. The firefighters cleared the scene around 4:30 AM and police secured the scene throughout the night. Fire department investigators as well as a BIA-Office of Justice Services (OJS) agent conducted the investigation to determine the fire’s origin and cause. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) also investigated the scene.

The cause of the fire has been determined to be incendiary. Fire and law enforcement officials would appreciate any information regarding this fire. Please call 1-800-47-ARSON, the BIA OJS at 338-5371 or the fire department at 338-1701 if you have any information pertaining to this fire or any other fires.

The North Fork Store is owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe and has been leased and operated by Sandia Oil Company since 2010. The future of the store has not yet been determined.