The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Burning Pile

Trained firefighters ignite pile-burns to complete fuel reduction projects, making homes in the forest safer from the threat of catastrophic fires, such as the Rodeo and Chediski fires.

Forester’s Log

Nothing gray about fire starting


I re-read the last sentence of the guide book section on “What to do if lost or injured” again. I cannot believe the statement is there in print. It reads, “A note of warning: in case of extreme fire conditions in the forest, making any kind of a fire could be considered illegal.”

Excuse me. I think that needs to be rewritten. The more accurate warning should read: in the case of extreme fire conditions in the forest, making any kind of fire could kill people, destroy property, and devastate the forest!

I live in the White Mountains of Arizona. I am relatively new to this area, thus my interest in a guide book to the hiking trails of the region. I came here to work as a Burn Area Emergency Coordinator, because five years ago, two people who felt they were in desperate situations started some fires. It is an action both individuals regret doing.

The Rodeo Fire, started by Leonard Gregg, and the Chediski Fire, started by Valinda Jo Elliott, burned together to scorch nearly a half-million acres of forests and woodlands, destroy almost five hundred buildings, and cost almost $200 million for suppression, rehabilitation, and property loss costs.

Elliott trespassed in a closed section of tribal lands without a permit. She got lost and started a signal fire on a steep hillside, only a ten-minute scramble from flat clearings and roads that would have provided safer locations for her fire. While the White Mountain Apache Tribe took her to court, she has yet to pay a fine or serve a day of community service.

I check the trail guide, Walking the Edge by Laurie Dee Acree, for a publishing date: 2004, two years after the Chediski Fire wreaked havoc in Heber and Overgaard. Since Elliott was “rescued” and continues to contest her fines, perhaps Acree, a White Mountain resident before, during, and after the Rodeo-Chediski fire, believes fire starting while lost should merely “be considered illegal.”

Gregg, a White Mountain Apache Tribal member, was a part-time wildland firefighter with limited fire experience. Unemployed, in a community that had a sixty percent unemployment rate, Gregg had limited opportunities to make money. He did not feel he had any other options but to get a part time job fighting fire. He wanted a day or two of work, and lit a fire that he hoped might provide that. Gregg is serving a ten-year jail sentence and owes $28 million in restitution.

Earlier this month, another firefighter was sentenced for the similar crime of starting a fire. Van Bateman was not only a full-time wildland firefighter with extensive experience; he had been one of the key incident commanders during the Rodeo-Chediski fire. The fires he started did not destroy homes or devastate vast expanses of forest. In fact, Bateman recently tried to explain to the public that he felt his intentions in starting the fires were good. In a story in the Arizona Republic, Bateman was quoted as saying “I wasn’t trying to start an arson fire. I was just trying to clean this piece of country up. . .”

Still, as U. S. Forest Service Southwest Regional Forester Harv Forsgren wrote in a letter to the Arizona Republic editor, “(Bateman) set the fires during a time when prescribed burning was not done because forest conditions were too dangerous. He did not arrange for other firefighters to manage the fires. He did not report the fires. He did not stay at the fires to make certain they were under control.” Bateman was sentenced to two years in jail.

Society defines our relationship with fire. As with any other aspect of society, that role is often shifting. Forty years ago, any fire in the forest was generally thought to be a bad thing. Today, fire is recognized as being a natural process on the landscape.

Starting fires, especially during extreme conditions such as dry weather and high winds, is not acceptable. The act of starting a fire evokes the responsibility for that fire, to insure that it does no harm, and to be responsible for any harm that it may cause. Like any other citizen, firefighters, who often double as fire starters for prescribed burning activities, need to cherish this societal value that we do not start fires during extreme conditions. That should go for people who are lost or injured as well.

Relying on our legal system to allow a lost individual the right to endanger others by starting a wildfire seems ludicrous. A better solution would be to encourage anyone going into the woods to carry a signal mirror. At least, the authors of trail guides should be promoting this strategy, rather than suggesting actions that risk lives and millions of dollars of damage.

Author and forester Mary Stuever welcomes questions or comments at

Interagency team working on proposals for the Sandia Wilderness

An interagency team is currently conducting an initial analysis of the east side of the Sandia Mountains for future implementation of fuel treatment projects north of I-40, west of the forest boundary near North 14, South of Highway 536 (Crest Highway), and east of the Crest Trail. The purpose of this analysis is to provide potential project proposals for this specific area. The project team will analyze both scientific data from this area and input from interested parties. Expect to see team members on the mountain doing the forest studies and possibly contacting some of you through emails, phone calls, etc. Much of the analysis area is within the Sandia Wilderness.

As most of you know, there is an urgent need to reduce fuel loads in our mountains to lower fire risk in the communities and bring back balance to the forests. Overcrowded conditions due to lack of fire, and insect infestation by bark beetle and Douglas-fir tussock moth have created a situation where, if a fire did start within the Sandia Ranger District, we would see devastating effects to both the resource and the surrounding communities.

For additional information or a final report about the project, please contact Dana Carter at 281-3304, extension 130.

Paper or plastic?


The question everyone gets asked at the supermarket. The answer may seem obvious, but is not necessarily. Paper bags are considered more biodegradable, but on the other hand they are also bulkier and take up more landfill space. When one is recyclable and the other is not, that makes the answer easier. The Placitas Recycling Center was accepting plastic bags until a few months ago as a joint effort with the elementary school. That program has ended, and there is currently no market for plastic bags available to the center. Some merchants still offer collection services for plastic bags.

The Placitas Recycling Center does accept paper bags. However, space at the center is limited, and it has had trouble keeping up with the increasing demand from new residents moving into the community. The Placitas Recycling Association is working with Sandoval County to increase capacity and service at the center and anticipates improvements in the future. In the meantime, with the ever-increasing quantity of recycled materials the center is receiving, the Association is requesting community assistance in reducing the amount of paper bags that are being recycled.

The principles of waste minimization can be summed up in three words, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” The most effective way people can decrease the volume of waste entering the landfill is by reducing the amount of waste they generate. The second line of defense is reusing items before discarding them. Recycling should only come after those options have been considered. The Placitas Recycling Center, for example, holds back some packing boxes and offers them for reuse. Similarly, all polystyrene peanuts brought into the center are available for reuse.

The same principles can be applied to shopping bags. The best response to the “paper or plastic” question is “neither—I brought my own reusable bags.” If the store takes plastic bags back for recycling, plastic may be a better option than paper. Another avenue to consider is reusing clean paper bags, for instance to collect other recyclables or as packaging. If these options are not workable, the Placitas Recycling Center continues to recycle paper bags, in addition to other forms of paper, cardboard, aluminum, and No. 1 and No. 2 plastics (except bags).

The all-volunteer Placitas Recycling Center is located on Highway 165 just east of I-25 and is open every Saturday between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m. New volunteers are always needed and encouraged to sign up at the center during its operating hours. More information about the center can be found at

County landfill offers free trash disposal (for a day) to Placitas, Algodones and Llanito

Sandoval County Commissioner Orlando Lucero said the county landfill will waive disposal charges for pickup loads of trash for residents of Placitas, Algodones, and Llanito during community clean-up efforts on Saturday, July 14.

“People should get rid of that trash now. Free use of the county landfill is a great opportunity for people to clean up their neighborhoods, especially in older areas and along our streets and roadways where trash may have been accumulating for years,” Lucero said.

The Sandoval County landfill is open on Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. to noon. The standard charge of $4.50 per pickup load will be waived that day for residents of Algodones, Placitas, and Llanito, but proof of Sandoval County residency will be required.

Lucero commended Algodones residents Marisol and Raul Aragon and Lori and Paul Vigil for organizing a volunteer clean-up effort in their community on July 14. Clean-up volunteers will meet at 8:00 a.m. at the Algodones Elementary School and the effort will end at noon.

Similar clean-up drives and free disposal of trash at the landfill have been held in communities throughout Sandoval County earlier this year.

“We are hopeful that every community in the county will organize and schedule regular clean-up days throughout the year so that, little by little, every community will start looking better,” Lucero said.

“Additionally, the County Development staff is working on possible amendments to our zoning ordinance so that trash cleanup can be more effectively enforced across all of Sandoval County,” he said.

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