As the Rodeo and Chediski fires join forces to create even more havoc in northeastern Arizona, most of the 30,000-plus people who have already been evacuated from the area can only sit and wait to learn the fate of their homes and communities.
But for the 767 evacuees who have registered at Rim Country Middle School in Payson, local residents are making the wait a lot easier with a spontaneous outpouring of kindness and generosity that town leaders and disaster relief experts on the scene are calling "unprecedented."
Lining an entire wall of the school gym are sleeping bags, blankets and bedding stacked to the ceiling. In other areas of the gym are stacks of toiletries and donated clothing, food, toys and books.
While some of the evacuees are sleeping in the Payson High School gym and still others are staying in their own RVs, many have been placed in local homes.
"The file of people volunteering homes and bedrooms is this thick," volunteer Leon Chamberlain said, holding his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. "We have people willing to take pets, reptiles, anything."
In the school kitchen, volunteers are putting together a succession of hot meals with food provided by Cucina Paradiso with help from the local supermarkets and other area restaurants.
"It's overwhelming on a lot of different fronts to see what these folks are going through and have gone through ... to see the response of the Payson community," RCMS Principal Frank Larby said. "It's just incredible. You go through a lot of different emotions. Our community has done an excellent job of responding."
When Red Cross personnel finally arrived to take command of the evacuation center, effective at 5 p.m. Monday, several expressed amazement.
Local resident Randy Roberson, who has worked in relief efforts around the world, put it in perspective.
"I've dealt with helping foreign countries with their disaster preparedness plans and most of these entire countries don't have a plan as good as Payson's," he said. "The town of Payson has a lot to be proud of."
The evacuees, meanwhile most from the communities of Heber, Overgaard and Forest Lakes are spending a lot of their time solemnly watching TV reports on the fire and making nervous telephone calls to their own answering machines to see if their homes are still standing.
What they're hearing is that the combined fires have scorched more than 230,000 acres and are, to date, zero-percent contained. So far, at least 116 homes have been torched by the Rodeo Fire, with another 70 leveled by the Chediski Fire.
The good news: more than 1,000 homes have been saved.
The fire is currently on the western edge of Show Low, where about 7,695 residents were evacuated from 4,000 homes beginning Saturday. According to firefighters, it's not a matter of if the fire moves into town, but when.
The total of 30,000 people evacuated so far represents more than a third of Navajo County. And most won't be going home anytime soon.
Officials believe it might be weeks before they get control of the massive inferno, and by that time it could grow to 500,000 acres. By comparison, the Dude Fire that ravaged the Payson area in 1990 consumed about 25,000 acres.
The watching and waiting at RCMS creates a helplessness that can be frustrating at times.
"These people have lost their homes, their animals, their property," Sgt. Tom Tieman of the Payson Police Department said, as he surveyed the scene at the school Monday afternoon. "They're frustrated, and there's nothing worse than not being able to get back into it and find out what's happened."
Tieman said he understands the rationale for making people wait.
"Just because the fire went through doesn't mean it's not still burning," he said.
Arson is suspected in the Rodeo Fire, which began five miles northeast of Cibecue on White Mountain Apache tribal land.
The Chediski fire was started by a 31-year-old woman who was trying to attract the attention of a news helicopter covering the first fire. A combination of drought, high temperatures, gusting winds and flying embers escalated the two blazes at a rate of 5,000 acres per hour as they raced through ponderosa and pinyon pine, juniper and manzanita at the rate of 2 to 4 mph.
The combined fire has become the nation's No. 1 priority now that it has grown larger than the blazes in Colorado, which currently stand at 213,000 acres. President Bush has declared the state a major national disaster area. The president plans to fly over the fires for a firsthand look today (Tuesday).
But while the weary evacuees wait helplessly for some word about the homes they left behind, the kindness of the people of Payson and the Rim country means more to them.
"Payson is great," Peggy Shemek, who evacuated from Forest Lakes said Friday. "They've been just incredibly warm and wonderful."
Tieman, who was in charge of setting up the shelter, was even more enthusiastic. "This is the greatest town in the world," he said. "The people just show up and they've got stuff they're giving to me. 'Can I help? Here, have some blankets. Have some water.' We've operated this whole shelter on donated food and money."
Rodeo-Chediski at a glance
Acres destroyed as of Tuesday morning: 331,000
Square miles: 517
Homes and structures destroyed: 375
Number of evacuees: about 30,000
Total firefighter force expected by week's end: 5,000 to 6,000
Additional federal equipment promised: 13 air tankers, 349 fire engines, 54 helicopters
Containment: Zero percent.