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Evacuees Return Home-- or to Where Homes Were

Fire: Some find things just the way they left them. Others find only the smoldering remains.

June 30, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — More than a week after they were evacuated under the umber haze of the largest forest fire in Arizona history, residents in this and several neighboring communities were allowed back to their homes Saturday.

Most returned to find things almost exactly as they had left them when they fled: a paper on the front porch, the garage door open and the lawn half-mowed.

Others returned to find that almost everything had changed.

"Well, here's part of Jean's recliner," said Floyd Stapley, 71, as he pointed into the smoldering maw that was his and wife Jean's two-story log home in Pinedale. "That there, that's the soundboard for our piano."

The couple had gotten out with some photos, clothes, a camping trailer and Jean Stapley's wedding dress, last worn 53 years ago. The couple lost pretty much everything else, from the custom leather coat he bought when they were Mormon missionaries in Belize to the carved hardwood figures she had acquired when they were missionaries in Tonga.

With an optimism forged by time, tribulation and nine now-grown children, the Stapleys--unlike some of their kids--sifted through the ashes without crying Saturday. And when Floyd managed to fire up his 1953 Massey-Ferguson farm tractor, which was charred and twisted with four melted tires, he let out a ringing "Wheehaw!"

While about 25,000 of the 30,000 residents who were evacuated from Show Low and other towns on the east side of the blaze began returning Saturday, thousands of others were kept away, mostly those from the north and west sides of the 437,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire, which continued to rage in places.

Residents of Heber-Overgaard, where more than 200 homes have been destroyed, were told they would have to wait at least another day, and probably longer.

More than 4,500 firefighters, several hundred tanker trucks and other vehicles, and nearly two dozen aircraft continued to battle the fire Saturday. The most precarious site now is Forest Lakes, a town 40 miles west of here.

More than 600 homes in Forest Lakes were considered threatened, though firefighters successfully protected the hilltop community for the third night in a row and by Saturday evening had gained considerable confidence in their ever-widening fire lines.

Although just 10% of the fire was contained by Saturday night, officials were hopeful that figure could grow considerably today and Monday. Some fire lines have been dug around the majority of the 200-mile perimeter of the fire and needed only to be expanded.

Relatively calm winds and slightly cooler temperatures, in the mid-80s to mid-90s, aided firefighters Saturday, and U.S. Forest Service officials were talking as much about forest rehabilitation as firefighting.

For the first time since the fire began, though, Saturday was primarily a day of homecoming, whether the homes were still there or not.

Word began leaking out overnight that the numerous police barricades outside the city would come down, and by early morning evacuees began trickling into town, some having to tell uninformed guards that the town was indeed open. By afternoon, cars streamed from evacuee centers in the east into town.

Some vehicles were packed to the rails or windows with belongings. Most, though, returned with just a few changes of clothes and some photo albums, the telltale signs of a hasty exit.

As the lucky settled in to their still-standing homes, the evacuation and ensuing lock-down of the town emerged as a topic of considerable concern.

For more than a week, Show Low and surrounding communities had been under what Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler, in an interview, agreed was "martial law, if you want to call it that."

Anyone other than firefighters or law enforcement personnel seen driving around, even if this was their own town, was considered a burglary suspect and taken into custody.

More than 30 people were arrested, Butler said. The sheriff, who drives an unmarked sedan, was himself pulled over twice, he said, chuckling.

Others were arrested for failing to evacuate, some charged with endangering the lives of the officers trying to get them to go. Butler and three deputies took one man into custody as the flames approached.

"He says, 'I have the right to stay here and die,' " Butler said. "I said, 'Not in my county you don't.' "

Outside Pinedale, two members of the Cheney family hunkered down to ride out the fire after evacuating the rest of the family. The Cheneys own a company that provides water to several municipalities and also helps fire departments tap into water supplies. The patriarch, Jon, 45, and son Ben, 20, stayed and were working hard.

With their home protected on the south side by a meadow of short grass rather than tall pines, the father-son duo were assembling a part that would allow Pinedale tanker trucks to siphon water from a well.

Several hundred elk had gathered in the meadow for protection as the Cheneys--carrying Pinedale Fire Department credentials--toiled away, Ben Cheney said.

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