Last June 27, with the Rodeo-Chediski Fire still raging out of control, about 800 evacuees huddled in the Rim Country Middle School gym were told there was finally reason for "extremely cautious optimism."
The fire, the largest in the history of Arizona, had already ravaged more than 400,000 acres and destroyed 423 homes, and it was bearing down on Forest Lakes and other communities. But the report that day -- that the fire was 5-percent contained -- was the first good news they had heard since leaving their homes behind to an uncertain fate.
The haggard evacuees sat before televisions and cheered the pronouncement from fire spokesperson Jim Paxon that confirmed what local officials were telling them.
"We're on the scoreboard," he said. "We haven't been there for eight days. We're making progress."
Tim Grier, then Payson's deputy town attorney, was one of those local officials. Loaned to the U.S. Forest Service when the fire broke out, Grier served as a public information officer at the RCMS shelter.
The former firefighter, who also had a business and home in Forest Lakes, said the disaster still looms large in the collective memories of his neighbors.
Close call for Forest Lakes
"Everybody remembers and everybody is still apprehensive," Grier said. "I suppose scared is probably a better word for it. It wasn't that long ago, and it really was a very close call for folks in Forest Lakes."
This summer's fires, especially the Aspen which has destroyed about 350 homes and businesses on Mount Lemmon near Tucson, have rekindled the nightmare.
"To see it again in Summerhaven and see the emotions the people are going through (was awful)," Grier said, "-- (people) not knowing what was going to happen to their homes, not knowing if their homes had been burned, not knowing when they were going to be able to go back. Those were all the same emotions that we went through in Forest Lakes. If you remember, there were three days when we really did not know if Forest Lakes was going to burn, nor did the fire crews."
What most people sitting in the RCMS gym that day didn't know was that firefighters were about to take a major gamble that probably saved Forest Lakes from being torched -- a strategy that could just as easily have backfired.
"The odds were that Forest Lakes would burn," Grier recalled. "So they dropped those ping pong ball incendiary devices from helicopters to burn off the tops of (nearby) canyons with the hope that when the fire did make a run it would run out of fuels.
"Strategically, they ended up doing what they feared for a week -- putting fire in those canyons. It wasn't information we were releasing, and when I heard it I just said, ‘I hope it works.'"
"It was a last desperate technique and that's what stopped the fire in Forest Lakes. Some really fancy firefighting went on up there."
Too late for Heber-Overgaard
It was too late for the Heber-Overgaard area where 200 homes had already been destroyed. Firefighter Karen Stephens and fellow members of the Heber-Overgaard Fire Department stayed behind to fight the blaze when most of her neighbors took shelter at RCMS.
She said her neighbors are still nervous.
"We had smoke here last Friday from the Picture Fire and the phones were horrible," Stephens said. "People were upset thinking it's going to come again and I don't blame them. It was just 30 miles from us."
Emma Moos moved to Overgaard two months before the fire, when her husband died. Her house was destroyed, but that of her son and his family was spared.
Moos spent 13 days at the RCMS shelter. Her picture appeared on the front page of the July 5 Roundup reacting to the news that she and her neighbors could finally return to what was left of their community.
A year later, Moos is in her new house and she and her neighbors are putting their lives back together.
"We've been building all winter," she said. "People are bringing up their (manufactured) homes, adding on decks, building sheds, working on their yards. We've just been busy bees."
Lives forever altered
The sheer enormity of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire has forever changed the lives of those touched by it.
"I've been on a lot of fires," Grier said, "-- the Dude Fire back in 1990, the Florida fires, Idaho, California, Oregon. I don't think any of it matched the Rodeo-Chediski."
Stephens believes many have yet to come to grips with what happened to their idyllic forest world.
"Some of us haven't quite dealt with it all the way yet," she said. "When I drive to Show Low, it's a different road now. You're used to this big beautiful forest and now it's toothpicks. I kind of block it out, and a lot of people do that, trying to put it behind them."
Moos said this summer's fires actually helped her turn the corner.
"It just brought back all the memories," she said. "For the first three days, I couldn't listen to any of it or watch it on the news. Now I can."
Thanks in part to a strengthened sense of community, Moos said she believes she and her Heber-Overgaard neighbors will be just fine.
"Once you hit bottom, there's only one way to go," she said. "I look forward; I don't look back. This is such a nice bunch of people and everything is going forward."