5 Years After Rodeo-Chediski, Family Looks Forward

Advertisement

The view from Wanda and David "Doc" Clark's back patio has changed dramatically from five years ago, much like the Clarks' lives and the lives of many of their neighbors.

"We look out our back window and see all these burnt sticks," Wanda said. "You have no idea how hard it is to look at it because it was so lush and full, and the forest was just right there."

photo

David and Wanda Clark sit on the front porch of their Overgaard home. The Clarks lost their house in the Rodeo-Chediski fire in June 2002, but have rebuilt on the same land.

The Clarks' back yard is a small island of green amid a landscape of black and brown. The trees are small, only a few years old. Off to the right, a burned stump seems out of place. It's been turned into a flower planter as a reminder of the Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned the Clarks' home, about 200 other homes in Heber-Overgaard and nearly 500 homes total in eastern Arizona.

"God, we had bird baths and we had every kind of bird you could imagine in the backyard, along with the squirrels running up and down the trees, chasing each other," Wanda said. "It was a daily dose of nature that we came home to, and that's gone, you know what I mean? That's gone. We'll never be the same."

Rodeo-Chediski, the largest wildfire in Arizona history, consumed nearly a half-million acres of forest and forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents along a 60-mile stretch of Highway 260, including everyone in Heber-Overgaard.

The Clarks had about three hours to gather what they could and evacuate to Holbrook. When they returned a few days later, their home was gone.

"You cannot replace things that were treasured," Wanda said.

Among the items the Clarks lost in the fire: a baby carriage once owned by Wanda's grandmother, Doc's record and comic book collections, dishes handmade by Doc's mother and a painting of Jesus from the 18th century.

"Thank God we had some insurance," Wanda said. "Some other people, they didn't. They were devastated."

David Tenney, a member of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors, said residents have become more aware and "fire-wise." Most residents now keep their private property clear of undergrowth, space trees farther apart and have evacuation plans, Tenney said.

"Certainly it's a wonderful thing to live in the forest, but it also brings inherent dangers and responsibilities," Tenney said. "I see a whole lot more people being aware of how their property needs to be treated."

The Clarks moved to Arizona from Alaska 15 years ago, to run the Rim Café. Wanda described Heber-Overgaard as a tight-knit community. She said she felt like an outsider when she first arrived.

"I had to earn my merits and prove myself like everybody else does," she said. "Trust doesn't come just overnight."

When the couple returned after the fire, a banner above the street that read "Welcome Home" was especially hard to take.

"Both Doc and I broke down and just bawled, because it was good to be home, but then all of a sudden, we realized we didn't have one," she said.

The Clarks were overwhelmed by the outpouring of help and support they received from the community after the fire. Friends and neighbors sifted through the ashes of the Clarks' former home, finding an old skeleton key that Doc had given Wanda when they first met, telling her that it was "the key to his heart."

A "For Sale" sign now hangs in the window of the Rim Café.

Wanda said she misses the proximity to nature and wildlife that came with living in the forest.

Doc said he misses the forest, too, but he's starting to get used to the new view.

"It will look like that again," he said. "Mother Nature will go back to it.

"It's just not going to be in our lifetime."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.