Rodeo-Chediski 70 Percent Contained

Heber-Overgaard evacuees could be home soon

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Many of them have endured 10 days of mostly bad news about the Rodeo-Chediski Fire that ravaged their communities, but the 800-plus evacuees at the Rim Country Middle School got some good news Monday morning they'll be going home soon, perhaps in the next few days.

"It's getting closer," said Ken Frederick, information specialist for the Coconino National Forest, who conducted the Monday morning briefing for the evacuees. Most of those staying at the shelter are from Heber and Overgaard communities where more than 200 homes were destroyed. "All the signs are there, so be encouraged."

Arizona Representative Jake Flake, whose district the fire is in, drove through the area en route to the briefing.

"The road is clear except for some smoke," Flake said. "I could see some active blazes here and there, but it was just an old stump burning out or something like that."

While Frederick wouldn't give the evacuees a firm estimate, Flake believes the word to re-enter evacuated areas could come soon.

"I think we're only a couple of days from the people going home," he said. "Heber-Overgaard is basically safe now, but you can't let those people go home until Forest Lakes is safe because most of the people have to go through there to get home."

Most of the evacuees, now in much better spirits, are ready to go.

"I am anxious," said Helen Defoor whose Overgaard house is reportedly safe. "I can't hardly wait to get home."

Frederick told evacuees that while the fire had reached 467,584 acres, it is now considered 70 percent contained.

Officials expect full containment of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire by this Sunday.

"All sides of the fire are looking good," he announced.

That's good news for the residents of Forest Lakes, a community of 600 homes that was considered in imminent danger from the rapidly approaching fire as recently as Saturday. Firefighters appear to be winning their battle to keep the roaring inferno away from several canyons that would serve as a one-way street into Forest Lakes, and fire lines south of Highway 260 appear to be holding.

Nevertheless, none of the fire is considered contained in the Heber-Overgaard-Forest Lakes area, the northwestern edge of the fire.

Friday morning, Gov. Jane Hull visited emergency workers and evacuees at Payson's Rim Country Middle School gym after a helicopter tour of the fire. The governor contrasted what she saw of the fire with a similar tour of the area two months ago to oversee efforts to prepare for what promised then to be a dangerous fire season.

"I think we all knew the fire season was going to be bad," Hull said. "I don't think anybody had any idea it was going to be this bad."

Hull promised the weary evacuees the state would do all it could to get them home as soon as possible.

"Everyone wants to get you back to your homes, to let you see your homes, just as quickly as we can," she said. "But we're not going to endanger lives firefighters' lives or yours."

The governor said a major disaster like this makes people remember the big picture.

"It makes you look at what you have and realize what's important," Hull said. "The most important thing to me right now is that there have been no lives lost."

Saturday, 25,000 of the 30,000 people evacuated from Show Low and other communities on the eastern side of the fire were allowed to return home. Like Forest Lakes, Show Low was saved after it appeared to be a lost cause.

A combination of drought, high temperatures, gusting winds and flying embers escalated the Rodeo-Chediski Fire at a rate as high as 5,000 acres per hour as they raced through ponderosa and pipine, juniper and manzanita at a rate of up to four miles per hour.

So far at least 423 homes have been destroyed, and more than $30 million has been spent fighting the blaze.

More than 4,000 fire personnel, 237 fire engines, 95 water tenders, and 23 helicopters are currently engaged.

As they finally seem to be gaining the upper hand, Flake expressed gratitude that it wasn't worse.

"It's hard to say we were fortunate when you have a fire of this magnitude, but we had a lot of blessings and one of them was that the crisis in Heber-Overgaard didn't come until Pinetop, Lakeside and Show Low was over," Flake said. "Had they come at exactly the same time, we wouldn't have had the resources and both areas would have been burned out."

He also praised the communities housing the evacuees.

"I spent a lot of time over at the (evacuation center) in Eagar and it was almost like a carnival atmosphere because these towns took care of them so well, and that is wonderful to me," he said. "I can't say enough about towns like Eagar, Springerville, Snowflake, St. John's, Taylor, Payson, White River. To me, they're the heroes."

Flake said the hospitality and support the evacuees have received has been a big factor in their ability to withstand their trying circumstances.

"Of course they want to go home," Flake said. "But I've talked to several people here and no one is upset."

Another factor is the talk of going home. As DeFoor listened to the briefing, she worked on a jigsaw puzzle with a big smile on her face.

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