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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM THE RODEO-CHEDISKI FIRE

As Danger Ebbs, Residents Assess the Financial, Emotional Damage

July 05, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PAYSON, Ariz. — It takes a good 10 hours to circumnavigate the Rodeo-Chediski fire, with its 200-mile perimeter and hundreds of roadblocks and detours. All along every route are yellow signs: "Watch for elk."

The elk are easy to spot these days. They are either huddled in nervous, thirsty herds or charred black, lying on their sides in the gray ash.

The homes seem much the same. There are the ones still standing, almost awkwardly in the middle of a skeletonized forest. And there are the ones, sometimes just across the road, that appear magically transformed from a home into a hole.

With the blaze finally withering under the onslaught of pickaxes and rain, people are beginning to count the dead elk, calculate the dollar value of the lost houses, study nearly every aspect of one of the most devastating wildfires of the last two decades and the largest in Arizona history.

What everyone in these parts already knows is that it has been a fascinating, humbling event: a 2,000-degree demonstration of nature's duality--terrifyingly powerful and astoundingly beautiful at once.

"That's a fire," one soot-covered man said with a sense of awe after a day on the fire line. "That's a real fire."

In a similar way, the blaze has left bare the communities, exposing them for what they are: small mountain towns with once-spectacular views whose residents are in the midst of trying times.

In the community of Eagar, near the New Mexico border--Mormon country, as people like to say--some residents criticized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for taking better care of their own than of non-Mormons. The critics, it seems, hadn't met the Mormon couple who welcomed 11 evacuated strangers of various faiths into their home for nine days.

Here in Payson, meanwhile, a man allegedly pilfered sleeping bags, shampoo, canned food, clothing--a van full of supplies meant for evacuees.

And there's part-time firefighter Leonard Gregg, a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, accused of intentionally starting a blaze that has devastated the economy of his already impoverished community, the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Destitute himself, Gregg allegedly set the fire because he was desperate for the $8 an hour he would earn fighting it, prosecutors say.

Many who don't live here view Arizona as a desert--a mostly flat, hot place with the occasional iron-red cliff, lakes Mead and Havasu, and the Grand Canyon.

A hundred miles northeast of Phoenix, though, the desert rises up and becomes forest, with dense, cool stands of ponderosa pine and streams so clear a fisherman often sees the rainbow trout hit his fly.

The Rodeo fire began June 18 on a mountainside between the two Arizona extremes, a place on the reservation with scrub brush and pines. In a single day it ran up the canyons near the town of Cibecue, spread out across the ridges and became a six-mile line of 200-foot-tall flames.

The smoke turned the sun into a red disk during the day, the moon into a red disk at night.

Then, on June 20, 15 miles to the northwest near Chediski Peak, a lost hiker started a fire in an attempt to signal a passing helicopter. Two days later the fires merged.

Daylight diminished even more, getting as dark as during a solar eclipse. At night, cool air from the upper atmosphere settled down on the fire like a lid, holding in the smoke.

"The monster," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Paxon called the inferno.

Authorities ordered residents of Show Low, Pinedale, Linden, Heber, Overgaard and other towns to evacuate.

More than 30,000 people fled, many with only a few hours' notice or less. In some cases, sheriff's deputies arrested those who refused to leave, on charges of endangering the deputies' lives.

Daniel Powell, a 62-year-old former grocer on a run of tough luck, had been living with relatives in the forest since spring. When a ranger told them to go, they made their way to the middle school here, like more than 800 others.

They had almost no money, and they weren't getting along, Powell said. When he went into the school to collect the $10 a local Indian casino was giving each evacuee, he came out to find his relatives had driven away.

"They left me two bicycles and my dog," Powell said. Then he started crying.

Along with thousands of evacuees around the rim of the fire, Powell took up residence in a gymnasium. The gyms became small communities, with strangers sleeping next to one another on cots, volunteer pianists plunking out ragtime tunes, massage therapists working the kinks for free.

The strangest of the makeshift towns, perhaps, was the one at Eagar High School, where people slept beneath a massive, opaque sports dome. Workers laid out more than an acre of artificial turf, and life went on atop an oversize football field. The bleachers were off-limits, so there were no fans, only players.

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