With the Rodeo-Chediski Fire declared 100 percent contained as of 6 p.m. Sunday, residents returning to their homes from the Payson evacuation center began the difficult task of putting their lives together.
But first they paused to celebrate and thank firefighters with a big parade and cookout in Heber-Overgaard Saturday morning. Riding on a Payson fire truck in the parade were Mayor Ken Murphy, Fire Chief John Ross, and Deputy Town Attorney Tim Grier, who served as a volunteer information officer at the Rim Country Middle School shelter.
"The turnout was amazing," Grier said. "They lined the streets. It was just a great homecoming for everybody, and it was especially impressive considering those folks had just re-entered the community a few days earlier. The streets were four deep in a lot of places, and they had a big picnic afterwards."
Ross was also impressed.
"It was incredible, just incredible," the fire chief said. "It was a great time, and it showed great community spirit. There were hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands lining Highway 260."
The Payson contingent received its share of appreciation as well.
"They were all thanking us and holding signs that said 'Thanks,'" Grier said. "They were all thinking of us."
The Payson evacuation center officially closed its doors Sunday evening, and the focus will now shift to rehabilitating the fire area.
"We still have a lot of work ahead with the rehab, both short term and long term," Grier said. "I understand they're planting native grass seed today, bucking up the trees that were knocked down to make dozer lines, and spreading out some of the brush."
He said soil erosion is a major concern.
"We often get monsoon rains right on the heels of our major fires," Grier said.
It will also take the area economy some time to recover.
"A lot of the perception given by the press is that everything up here is blackened, and that's just not the case," Grier said. "The media all went to Pinecrest Lake, the one spot that was black, so I'm sure the impression in Phoenix is that that's what the Rim is like."
Grier expects reality to set in once the celebrating is over.
"It's going to be hard to get back on our feet," he said. "Not only are there a lot of people out of their homes, but also out of their jobs. Most of the businesses are tourism-based in this area."
Grier described the mixed emotions of residents as bittersweet.
"On one hand, people are jubilant to be back," he said. "but I drove around afterwards and saw people outside of burned homes talking to insurance adjusters."
The remaining fire crews are working 350-500 feet within the fire perimeter searching for hot spots. They are also working in areas where the perimeter is cold to restore hand and dozer lines to their natural state.
While many personnel, dozers and engines were released from the fire over the weekend, two type one incident management teams and a type two team remain engaged. An estimated 950 firefighters are still on the scene, down from 4,500 when the fire was burning out of control.
Payson Municipal Airport has returned to normal after serving as the base of helicopter operations for over a week.
"The transition actually started on Friday, was probably 95 percent completed by Saturday, and then Sunday the last larger helicopter flew out," said Ted Anderson, airport manager. "From our standpoint, it's all over."
At its peak, the operation at the Payson airport included five air attack airplanes and 10 helicopters.
"Of the 10, we had four heavy-lift helicopters, also known as type one, we had three medium-lift helicopters, and then we had three light helicopters," Anderson said. "We had a type one helibase operation center set up with a temporary FAA control tower with windows on three sides.
"We even established a pilot's lounge at the Crosswinds Restaurant."
Anderson said the operation caused the closure of two sections of the taxiway and three ramps, but the airport was able to function on a business-as-usual basis.
Many Rim country residents came out to the airport to watch the firefighting aircraft come and go.
"Early in the morning when it was really busy, we'd have anywhere from 15-25 cars plus another 5 or 10 in the restaurant watching the helicopters come in.
Not only was it helpful to have the equipment stationed in Payson in the event of a fire in this area, but it also helped to emphasize the importance of the airport to the community.
"I think it opened some people's eyes to the value of the airport," said Anderson.
Meanwhile the Payson Ranger District issued a reminder that the Tonto National Forest remains closed due to extreme fire danger.
All activities on Forest Service lands under closure are prohibited for residents as well as visitors, including hiking, riding horses, hunting, camping and operating motorized vehicles. All trails within closure boundaries are off limits.
"This is the driest year in the Rim country and the Tonto National Forest since records have been kept," said Gary Roberts, district fire prevention officer. With just 4.5 inches of precipitation from October 1 through April 30, the area is 65 percent below the 69-year average of 12.7 inches.
Roberts says the monsoons can't get here soon enough, even if they are preceded by lightning.
"A fire is a chaotic environment, and this is a year of epic proportion," Roberts said. "Anything is possible, but my biggest concern is a fire here that we don't get a handle on as quick as we can.
"The weather service out of Flag today said the monsoon is building. It's headed in our direction.
"We always know we're going to get the lightning for 7-10 days, but behind it is the moisture that will help us manage this."
The Rodeo Fire was allegedly started on June 18 by Leonard Gregg, a 29-year-old contract firefighter who wanted more work. He pleaded innocent to two arson-related charges at a hearing in Flagstaff last week 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. Federal 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 a rate of up to 4 miles per hour. On June 22, the two fires merged and eventually consumed 468,638 acres and ravaged 467 homes including 200 in Heber-Overgaard.
So far the cost of battling the blaze is at least $43 million, with another $28 million in damage.
"There's going to have to be a lot of healing that the communities will have to do," said Grier. "I think they're strong folks and I think they'll do well, but it's not going to be without tremendous challenges.