Extremely cautious optimism is the mood at Rim Country Middle School among emergency workers and evacuees of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire still raging in northeastern Arizona.
While the fire has grown to 417,000 acres, officials consider it 10 percent contained in the area of Clay Springs, Linden and Pinedale, communities already ravaged by the inferno.
At RCMS, where more than 800 evacuees mostly from Heber and Overgaard are staying, people are talking about going home sometime soon. Media and local officials, including Payson Mayor Ken Murphy, were allowed to tour that area for the first time Wednesday.
While most of the 430 homes and businesses lost to the fire are in the Heber-Overgaard area, Murphy said it was obvious that the firefighters had waged a Herculean fight.
"I was very impressed by what I saw," the mayor said. "It must have been one heck of an effort by the firefighters to save as much as they did.
"There were homes lost, but it could've been so much worse if those firefighters hadn't stood their ground."
As the caravan reached the area around 4:30 p.m., it passed Hot Shot crews conducting a burnout to keep the fire from jumping Highway 260.
"It was spectacular," Murphy said. "They literally burned out 10 miles of the forest to have it meet the fire so it wouldn't jump the road."
Murphy said he's hopeful people at the shelter will be able to tour their communities and see their homes in the next couple days, but he expects the shelter to remain full for up to two weeks more.
"There's still fire in the Heber-Overgaard area, so we're going to be in business here at the middle school for awhile yet unless it rains," he said. Arizona is in the midst of a protracted drought that began several years ago.
Evacuee Mike Ward, who lives in the Pinetop-Lakeside area which now appears safe, came to the briefing Thursday morning to find out when he can go back home.
"We've been here since Sunday, and I'm very encouraged," said Ward. "It looks like they've stopped it in Cottonwood Canyon."
Payson Fire Chief John Ross is also cautiously optimistic.
"From what I've heard, and I've toured the area, the western aspect of the fire is being hit hard with resources both on the ground and in the air and it's holding south of Highway 260," Ross said. "It's still quite an effort, but I'm getting more comfortable they will hold the line."
While Payson is not threatened by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, Murphy said conditions here are very similar.
"I look around and I see what can happen to a community surrounded by trees," the mayor said. "It really heightens your sense of awareness and fear. South of us is some of the thickest chaparral in the Doll Baby Ranch area. All it would take is some dummy with an out-of-control campfire and it could race right into Payson."
While Ross has committed a fire engine and rotating crews to the fire effort, vigilance has also been heightened locally.
"We're sending out severity patrols constantly," he said. "We have people in the forests. We have air reconnaissance. If we find any lightning strikes or starts, our plan is to hit it very hard, put a lot of resources on it, and keep it small."
Meanwhile, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire continues to consume most everything in its path. It is within a half-mile of Show Low's western boundary and is still considered a threat to that town.
Relatively mild weather conditions aided the suppression effort Wednesday, but dry monsoonal thunderstorm activity generated wind gusts of up to 40 to 50 mph and lightning strikes in some areas.
Fire officials also were concerned about smoke plumes building on the fire's southern and western edges. Such plumes, though they cool the fire, create visibility problems and pump out gusts of wind that carry embers over a wide area.
A $6,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and indictment of those responsible for starting the Rodeo Fire. Arson is suspected in that blaze, which began June 18, five miles northeast of Cibecue.
A 31-year-old Phoenix woman is under investigation for starting the Chediski Fire June 20. She ran out of gas and allegedly tried to attract a news helicopter covering the Rodeo Fire by starting a signal 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.
So far, more than 32,000 people have been evacuated from 10 towns, more than a third of the residents of Navajo County. The combined fire has become the nation's No. 1 priority now that it has grown larger than the blazes in Colorado.
President Bush toured the area Tuesday, meeting with firefighters and several hundred evacuees in the Round Valley High School cafeteria in Eagar. Bush declared Apache and Navajo counties and the Fort Apache Reservation disaster areas, making them eligible for federal aid and low-cost loans.