Homeward Bound

Fire 90 percent contained; evacuees return home

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When the long anticipated announcement finally came Wednesday morning for evacuees to return home, forest officials tapped volunteer information specialist Tim Grier to do the honors.

Grier, the deputy town attorney for Payson, owns both a home and a business in Forest Lakes. For the past two weeks, he has practically lived with 800 of the evacuees who fled from Forest Lakes, Heber, Overgaard and Aripine to the evacuation center at the Rim Country Middle School.

"I'm the local boy, and they knew I was going to be excited about it," Grier said. So were his friends and neighbors.

A rousing cheer echoed through the middle school gymnasium, pressed into service as an evacuation center when the Rodeo-Chediski Fire forced the evacuation of 10 northeastern Arizona communities. But there were also embraces and tears and some simply broke down and cried when they heard the news that they could finally reclaim their lives.

"Yea," shouted evacuee Gary Moos. His Overgaard house was untouched by the blaze, but his mother's house nearby was destroyed.

"My 'yea' isn't as big," his mother, Ellen Moos, said. She'll stay with her son while her house is being rebuilt.

Demonstrating the resiliency of the displaced residents, Gary Moos added, "One out of two ain't bad."

Officials waited to make the announcement until well into the Wednesday briefing, fearing a mass exodus for the doors before emergency workers could explain what the evacuees could expect to find when they got home, what hazards and conditions to watch for, and where they could turn for help.

"Heber looks great," Grier told them. "When you drive through Heber you won't realize that fire has encroached on people in the Overgaard area.

"But we do need to remember those who lost their homes. They're our neighbors, they're our friends, and we need to think of them at this time when we get to return home."

While a heroic effort by firefighters left Forest Lakes unscathed, more than 200 homes were destroyed in the Heber-Overgaard area when the massive fire roared through those communities on June 22.

But while the fire has now ravaged 470,000 acres of pristine forest, it is only growing at the rate of about 1,000 acres a day. At its peak, it was consuming 5,000 acres an hour.

Firefighters, who are optimistic they have "turned the corner," estimate the fire is now 90 percent contained and expect full containment sometime Sunday.

Residents of Show Low and other communities on the eastern side of the fire 25,000 of the 30,000 evacuees returned home Saturday.

Evacuees at the Payson center were among the last to return to their homes. When they got there, they found the Red Cross and Salvation Army waiting to assist them.

Emergency centers have been opened in two elementary schools in the Heber-Overgaard area. A kitchen has been set up in an Overgaard church to feed the returnees, and Red Cross disaster mental health workers are on the scene to aid in the emotional recovery.

At the Wednesday morning briefing, Forest Lakes Fire Chief Jim Littlepage touched on the task that lay ahead.

"We dodged a lot of bullets the last 14 days," Littlepage said. "We took some hits, but we won the war. Now it's time to heal and time to rebuild ... It's going to be an important time to pull together as a family, but this is northern Arizona, we're a team, and we're going to make it happen."

While providing perspective on wildfires, Grier also touched on the future.

"Fire is a natural progression in our forest," he told evacuees. "When the monsoon rains come and things are reseeded, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest our back yard is going to look better. Just because we've returned home doesn't mean that life is back to normal for us. But we've always been a strong community and we'll pull together and be even stronger for this."

The Rodeo Fire was allegedly started on June 18 by Leonard Gregg, a 29-year-old unemployed firefighter who was looking for work. He pleaded innocent to two arson-related charges at a hearing in Flagstaff Wednesday and was denied bail.

The Chediski Fire was started June 20 by Valinda Jo Elliott, a 31-year-old Valley woman who became lost while hiking and set the fire as a signal. Prosecutors are still deciding whether to file charges against her.

A combination of drought, high temperatures, gusting winds and flying embers escalated the two blazes at a rate as high as 5,000 acres per hour as they raced through ponderosa and pipine, juniper and manzanita. At one point, the fires traveled at a rate of up to four mph. June 22, the two fires merged.

So far the cost of battling the blaze is at least $32 million, and more than 4,000 fire personnel have been involved in the effort.

But the disaster was not without its lighter moments, and Grier shared one with evacuees at the Wednesday briefing.

"Forest Lakes didn't get touched except by the elk," Grier said. "I went by my place the other day and they ate all my flowers, ripped the geraniums out and tipped over all the flower pots, almost like they were mad at us for leaving them behind. The elk have been running amok in Forest Lakes with us gone."

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