With the Rodeo Fire near Show Low exploding to over three times the size of the Dude Fire, another human-caused blaze burning out of control near Forest Lakes has sent evacuees from Heber and Overgaard to Payson for refuge.
Eleven evacuees are occupying five rooms at Manzanita Manor, with another 100 or so camped at the Rim Country Mall parking lot, and still others staying at the Tonto Apache Activity Center, in local hotels and private homes.
The remainder were evacuated to Holbrook and Snowflake.
The Chediski Fire that threatens their homes had reached 5,000 acres Friday morning, when it was moving north above Red Lake. The blaze is also being referred to as the Signal Fire because it was started by a woman lost in the forest who was trying to attract the attention of a news helicopter covering the Rodeo Fire.
"It's disgusting how it started," said Rose Larke, a medical patient evacuated from Heber-Overgaard, from her bed at Manzanita Manor Friday morning. Like her neighbors, she had one hour to gather her valuables.
"I brought my doggy and some clothes and left everything else there," she said. "How can you pick things in an hour?"
John and Lorraine Barnes, who are also staying at Manzanita Manor, described the scene they left behind.
"When we left about 6 p.m. (Thursday), it was already dark and there were steady ashes coming down," Mrs. Barnes said.
"It was quiet and eerie," Mr. Barnes said.
"It was so sad," she added. "The stores were bolted up, and everybody just said, 'Goodbye and good luck.'"
"Eerie" and "sad" were words repeated by several evacuees, including Billy and Lois Stillwell, who were camped at the Rim Country Mall. As they sat on lawn chairs outside their motor home Friday morning with juice and doughnuts provided by the Red Cross, they expressed their gratitude for the welcome they received in Payson.
"Everybody's been very kind," Mrs. Stillwell said. "Payson has been very nice to us. Be sure to thank everybody for their kindness."
The Rodeo Fire, which began at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday five miles northeast of Cibecue on White Mountain Apache tribal land, had consumed 90,000 acres by Friday morning and is 0-percent contained.
It was a combination of high temperatures, winds gusting to 15 mph and flying embers that escalated the Rodeo Fire at a rate of 5,000 acres per hour as it raced up the Mogollon Rim through ponderosa and pinyon pine, juniper and manzanita at the rate of 2-4 mph.
At last report, the Rodeo Fire was moving north, but a forecast shift in the direction of the winds and an increase in their intensity left Show Low residents on alert to evacuate Friday morning.
About 5,000 residents in Clay Springs, Linden and Pinedale have already been evacuated to Springerville and Eagar. The fire burned through Pinedale Thursday, destroying an estimated 12 to 15 homes and up to 50 barns, sheds and other structures.
Highway 260 is closed from Star Valley, and I-40 and highways 77, 180, 277 and 377 are also closed.
Gov. Jane Hull freed up additional state funds to fight the blaze by declaring a state of emergency for Navajo and Apache counties Wednesday afternoon. She also activated the State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate firefighting efforts.
About 400 firefighters were on the scene Wednesday, and additional reinforcements, including a Type 1 incident management team from Flagstaff arrived Thursday morning.
Firefighters hope to contain the fire by around July 1, stopping it at Hop Canyon Road four miles east of Show Low. But they also are fearful that the two fires, currently about eight miles apart, could merge.
"They could burn together in the next few days and reach 300,000 acres," Larry Humphrey, commander of the incident management team, said.
"If that happens, it will be the largest wildfire in the world," Humphrey said.
The Dude Fire, started June 25, 1990, by a lightning strike, was previously considered the worst forest fire in Arizona's history. Before it was contained 10 days later, it had consumed 24,000 acres in three national forests, destroyed 63 homes and resulted in the deaths of six firefighters.