Under The Angry Cloud, 41 Miles Away

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Driving east from Payson yesterday afternoon, it looked like the same huge thundercloud that's been sitting on the horizon for a week.

Directly underneath the thing, it looked like something alive. Something angry. Something hungry.

When the U.S. Forest Service invited a caravan of journalists to view the destruction of Heber and Overgaard early Monday, it was actually possible to get into those towns. But during the seven days it has taken the Rodeo-Chediski Fire to rage across 330,000-plus acres of northern Arizona, the beast has ignored almost every prediction made by the dragonslayers who hope to stop it.

By midday, the southwest corner of Heber which had already been devastated two days before was under assault once again as the fire made a run up Buckskin Canyon.

And those who hoped the blaze would not creep west were disappointed to see it explode 25 miles in this direction over two days ... across Highway 260 just four miles east of Forest Lakes ... 12 miles west of Heber ... and 41 miles from Payson.

That's where the caravan of journalists stopped.

"That fire is really boiling up there," said Tonto National Forest Fire Information officer Jim Payne, the leader of the caravan. "What we're seeing is heavy-duty, fast-burning fire, and everything is being torched as it goes. We just talked with the division group supervisor, and he told us the situation is critical. We can't go any farther down the road for our own safety.

"This fire is taking off," Payne said. "Heber and Overgaard are threatened all over again. The fire is burning back up into the community. The spot where I was going to take you is exactly the spot where the fire is now burning."

That satisfied most of the 15-or-so journalists. Some of the TV reporters were not satisfied, however, and argued with Payne. One of the things you learn on junkets like this is that TV people want to stand in flames; newspaper people do not.

Some of the TV crew folks left in a huff. Everyone else was humbled by the demon rising about two miles ahead, directly over Highway 260, pouring hot reds and oranges and blacks and grays into the the afternoon sky.

"Could this fire ever reach Payson?" someone asked Payne as the reporters packed up their cameras and tape recorders.

"If the wind changes," he replied, "yes, it could. Absolutely."

Driving home through Forest Lakes ... along the Rim ... through Christopher Creek ... past Kohl's Ranch Lodge ... you couldn't help but notice.

Every grassy meadow, every shoulder-to-shoulder pine tree, every inch of Highway 260 was more beautiful than it had ever seemed before.

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