John Patricia, the owner of Ace Hardware, had a generous idea: Call the local Pizza Hut and order as many pies as the place could bake for the Rodeo-Chediski evacuees who are holed up all over the Payson countryside.
The last thing Patricia expected was that his order would be refused. But that's what happened.
Seems somebody had already come up with the idea.
Somebody at Pizza Hut.
"We offered to do some donating to the Red Cross, but they didn't want us just showing up with pizzas to feed people, since they've got their own program," said Doug Kreie, director of operations for eight Pizza Hut restaurants in central and northern Arizona, including the Payson store. "We thought about it, and one of our managers said, 'Well, why not just let them come to us?'"
That's just what evacuees have been doing at Kreie's Pizza Hut locations in Holbrook, Winslow, Globe and Payson.
"These people are probably going through the toughest thing they'll ever go through," Kreie said. "If we can help them get out, go somewhere and feel somewhat human again, and not have it cost them anything that's our goal."
All an evacuee needs to feed his or her family, Kreie said, is an ID which shows they hail from any of the evacuated areas. "They can come as often as they want, and they can have whatever they like on the menu except alcohol; I do still have to comply with state law.
"Our customers have supported us up here for 26 years, and we more than owe it back to these folks to be there when they're in need."
Even so, Pizza Hut's generosity is not just a regional thing, Kreie said.
"Our food distributors called yesterday and offered to totally reimburse all the food we've given to the evacuees. And then, not to be outdone, the Pizza Hut Inc. folks called and said they'd reimburse all of the labor expense it's taken to accomplish this."
As of Friday, he said, about 150 evacuees had taken advantage of the free-food offer at the Payson store alone.
"We've had a couple people who were absolutely in tears. It makes you feel good and it brings you to tears at the same time. Man, it's a powerful thing."
Meanwhile, businesses, organizations and individuals all over the Rim country and beyond are chipping in with labor or donations or both to help the evacuees and the firefighting effort.
Among them: Lumbermen's Building Center in Star Valley, which Friday donated $4,000 in firefighting equipment toward the blaze-dousing effort in Forest Lakes and enlisted the Payson area's four Boy Scout troops to coordinate the donation and load the equipment onto fire trucks for transport to the front lines.
"We have a lot of customers in the area of the fire, and we just wanted to show our support and help the firemen out as best we can," Steve Saychak of Lumbermen's said. "Several of the Lumbermen's stores in Arizona are also going to be sending palettes of bottled water. So it's a company effort. Hopefully, we'll help them put out that fire."
"Helping to make this donation means a lot to me," said Kyle Saychak, Steve's son. "It's a way for me and the Boy Scouts to reach out and help and do our part in society."
According to Payson Fire Marshal Jack Babb, the Scouts are succeeding in that goal.
"This donation is just great," Babb said as the boys loaded the donated equipment into a Payson Fire Department rig. "It shows support from our businesses and our volunteer community. And it really helps."
Meanwhile, at the evacuation center in the Rim Country Middle School gym, bona fide concert pianist Bruce Stoller is in the process of donating his most valuable assets: his talent and his keyboard.
"I was sitting around the studio," Stoller said, "working on a project with some friends, and I just said, 'I'm going up to Payson to make some people happy. It's the right thing to do.' So I called the Red Cross up here and told them about my act, and they said, 'Come on up.'
"I knew it was my cup of tea as soon as I walked in here, because I love chaos," Stoller said. "And the people here have shown me more love than I deserve. They give me thumbs-up, they request songs, the kids ask me about music and we talk. It's really had an effect on the tone of this place, and it's a great pleasure to be a part of that."
At the town of Payson's Monday morning disaster-update meeting, dozens of individuals, businesses and organizations were praised for their contributions of the past two weeks, including Charlie's Old-Fashioned Sausage & Fresh Meats, the Cucina Paradiso restaurant, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club ...
"It's absolutely overwhelming," said Randy Roberson, a Payson resident who is helping to coordinate aid for the evacuees.
"Early on in this disaster, one of the biggest logistical nightmares we had came late the first afternoon, when all of a sudden we were faced with needing breakfast for a possible 1,200 people the next day," Roberson said. "I made one phone call and had 2,400 eggs, 4,000 sausages and a bunch of other good stuff, all in the refrigerator at the middle school, ready to go.
"Later on, we ran out of pillows. I made one call to KMOG, they put it out on the air, and within an hour we had fifty more than we needed. It's been that way throughout the whole experience," he said. "The town of Payson is amazing. You ask for one thing, and you'll get 50 of them, and you're going to get it within the hour."