Heber Chamber President Returns Home: 'Oh, It Hurts'

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Dave Neff's emotions were, to say the least, mixed.

The president of the Heber-Overgaard Chamber of Commerce and the twin community's unofficial mayor, Neff was about to return home and survey the damage done by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

He had already gathered some hard facts: Heber-Overgaard has suffered the brunt of the fire's damage. In the Pinecrest Lake RV resort alone, flames destroyed about 168 of the 200 homes. At least six of the town's businesses had been reduced to black ash.

But Neff also knew that, so far, his own home was still standing. That more than 90 percent of the strip of forest that runs through the center of both towns was, so far, untouched. And that nary a local citizen or anyone else had perished in the biggest wildfire the West has ever witnessed.

"I'm going back, really, to verify the information I've received," Neff said as U.S. Forest Service officials led him and a group of reporters from Payson through charred forest land to Heber-Overgaard. "I'm looking to see that a lot of really good things are still there.

"My greatest concern is that there's an awful lot of low-income and elderly retired people who live there, and some of those places have been hit, and some of those people have lost everything they had."

The Heber-Overgaard chamber, Neff said, boasts 176 members, about 125 of which are actual businesses. "None of them are big," he said. "The only thing you'd probably recognize is the two Circle Ks and a Chevron-Dairy Queen combination."

Right now, he is asked, where is Heber-Overgaard's economy? "It's in Payson," Neff quipped with a weary laugh. "That's pretty much it. There are a lot of emotions out there. A lot of people are saying, 'If my place is gone, I'm not coming back. I'm not gonna live in a bunch of burnt-out forest.' The forest service has said that it'll take ten years before the nutrients are back in the ground to grow the trees, and another 100 before the trees are grown. I'm not living that long.

"My home and my business are there, and I think I have a responsibility to stay," Neff said. "But if my business and home went, I'd go. There are a lot of second- and third-generation people there, and they'd probably tough it out. But I don't think I would."

"Right now, though, I think that if we can keep what we haven't lost, we're in pretty good shape."

Being there

As the 11-car caravan led by the U.S. Forest Service wound its way toward Heber-Overgaard, fire roared through the pine trees and underbrush just five or 10 feet away.

But these weren't Rodeo-Chediski flames; they were a small part of the massive control-burn firefighters hope will keep the enemy from crossing Highway 260 into another 30 or 40 miles of pine-tree kindling and into other communities such as Forest Lakes, which at that point was a mere two miles away from the unfriendly fire.

Although it is about 5 p.m. and the sun is overhead, the thick cloud of smoke which fills the sky creates an eerie, shadowy, solar-eclipse kind of lighting.

From the highway, at least, Heber appears to be unchanged despite the utter absence of humanity on the streets, in the stores, in their cars, around their homes.

But there is a very clear picture of the fire's fury in Overgaard, where the blaze hopscotched all over town, on both sides of Highway 260, and landed with nuclear force on the Pinecrest Lake RV Resort.

Or most of it. At the front of the resort stood a half-dozen untouched homes on the edge of a tiny, pristine lake. But directly behind them, just a few feet away, lay acre upon acre of charred, twisted, knee-high rubble that was, just two weeks ago, the homes of 168 families.

Down Highway 260, block after block, was more destruction, as if a tornado had blown through. Amid the burned foundation of one home, a washing machine is charred black, a freezer door is melted off the refrigerator, an ironing board is twisted by heat into sooty, abstract art. Plastic white-log fences have melted to the ground like Salvadore Dali watches.

But the degree to which the real damage is hidden from the road is apparent at Overgaard's brand-new Bison Ranch resort community, where the entrance an Old West-style row of shops, a meadow filled with lazy bison, a sign advertising cabins for sale, priced from $120,000 is still inviting, still the picture of serenity.

A quarter-mile off 260, however, lay dozens of log cabin homes, burned to their foundations, filled with nothing identifiable except twisted sheets of metal that were once their roofs. But here, too, the fire played favorites. Pick a row, any row, of devastated cabins, and in the middle is one, maybe two, homes standing, inexplicably unscathed.

The forest directly behind Bison Ranch offered a grim view of what Rodeo-Chediski has done to the world's largest stand of ponderosa pine trees. As far as the eye can see are black trunks, scoured of bark, of needles, of any reflection of life. This is one of many places, a forest service official said, where the fire's temperature reached 2,000 degrees.

On the ground was the carcass of a squirrel who, a firefighter speculated, could not run fast enough to escape the inferno.

"Probably baked before he hit the ground," a passing firefighter muttered.

Onward, upward

"I'm really saddened for the people who have lost their places, but 80 to 90 percent of our community is still standing," Dave Neff said at tour's end. "We're going to pull through this. There's still a lot left. Seeing it in person, it's not as bad as I had feared."

Neff's voice cracked, just slightly, with emotion.

"I'm trying to be very strong. I have to be strong for those people. But, oh, it hurts," he said. "It really hurts."

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