A year after the Rodeo-Chediski fire, hardy souls and hard-hit towns rebuild - East Valley Tribune: News

A year after the Rodeo-Chediski fire, hardy souls and hard-hit towns rebuild

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Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2003 1:38 am | Updated: 1:32 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The Rodeo-Chediski fire burned a hole in Arizona's heart. A year after the biggest wildland fire in state history battered Mogollon Rim area towns and scattered refugees, the people of the Rim have not only survived, but thrived.

But the land which binds and defines them will not heal for centuries. And the psychological wounds, like the blackened forests, won't mend in this lifetime.

"It's almost like in defiance of this horror, people came back and did prettier things," said Bari Mears, a Phoenix resident who lost her summer home in Bison Ranch near Overgaard. The Show Low city treasurer rattles off numbers of healthy tax revenue and robust housing starts. "We're actually better off than last year," Larry Ploughe said. "What else can you ask for?"

However, walk southwest of Show Low over scorched earth in silent black woods, and no birds sing.

Linden resident Diane Dick hasn't seen a blue jay since the fire. Before Rodeo-Chediski, they'd land on her deck and take peanuts from her lips. "We're worried about all our birds," she said. "They just didn't come back this year."

The Show Low Fire Department takes a dozen calls a day reporting smoke from barbecues or dust devils. "It . . . gets a little old, but we can appreciate their concerns," Fire Chief Ben Owens said.

The Rodeo fire started June 18. Two days later the Chediski fire ignited.

Together they merged to 469,000 acres — bigger than metropolitan Los Angeles. It towered as high as 400 feet, dwarfing Arizona's tallest skyscraper — the Bank One building in downtown Phoenix — and it flared as hot as 2,000 degrees. Billowing smoke from the fire could be seen from the East Valley. The blaze rousted 30,000 people from 10 communities. More than 4,500 firefighters joined the battle from as far away as Alaska and Puerto Rico. The president of the United States flew in to show support.

That was one year ago. This is the Rim now.

Volunteer firefighter Charlie Brown is still pounding nails, rebuilding his house lost to the fire.

His once heavily forested 4-acre lot in Pinedale, just west of Show Low, is home to a pile of scorched automobiles, blackened Ponderosa pines and the 35-foot motorhome he has shared with his wife, Barbara, since the inferno uprooted their lives.

"That's a long time to be camping," he said.

He has marked a few partially seared trees with yellow ribbons. A steady whine of chain saws indicates the fate of the "snags," or standing dead trees.

"When this is all said and done, if we have any Ponderosa left, there will be very few of them," he said.

Brown's wife, Barbara, said she still has emotional days, as though she lost some of her identity to the fire. She's looking forward to a bright future in a new home.

"I can't see how going through the healing process of this fire is much different than what you go through with the death of a family member," she said. "You just have to knuckle down and get through it the best you can."

Including Brown's home, 465 houses and 26 structures such as barns and sheds burned along the Rim. The damage total reached $72.8 million, according to Cammy Darris, chief deputy of the Navajo County Assessor's Office.

Some have sold out and moved on. But Dave Ashton, director of the Navajo County building department, estimates that 90 percent of fire victims are returning to the Rim.

Last year, no new subdivisions were planned in Navajo County. This year five subdivisions are platted, including two on 160-acre sites, he said.

"I think it's a little bit better than I expected," Ashton said. Tombstone may have lost its title as Arizona's Town Too Tough To Die.

Heber-Overgaard lost 291 structures, mostly homes, in the fire — more than any other Rim town. About 40 homeowners were full-time residents, and most were insured, though often it wasn't enough. The towns banded together and raised $200,000 for struggling residents.

Construction crews have descended on the area, creating some feeling of promise. Of the 168 homes that burned in the Pinecrest Lakes mobile home area in Overgaard, about 130 are rebuilt or under construction.

Residents say it's good to hear the background noise of hammering and sawing. But it's strange to see rows and rows of shiny white new homes. Even their land looks foreign — bordered by an endless stretch of dead trees.

Mesa resident Lee Schabacker moved back to Pinecrest two weeks ago, in a new house in the same lot where she shared a home with her husband, Theodore. He died in March at age 91. Friends from the Faith Lutheran Church, where Schabacker preached until he was 89, are often at her home offering help. It feels odd when they leave, she said.

"I have no memories of him in this house," she said. "Down in Mesa I see him at the desk, I see him everywhere. I think he's going to walk in."

There's more regrowth just west of Show Low, in Linden, where a mountain subdivision called Timberland Acres lost 106 homes.

Devastation from the fire depreciated property values by more than $2 million, said Marilyn Price, Linden fire chief.

The fire district was forced to raise property taxes to keep a minimum level of service. The owner of a $100,000 home will pay an extra $450 in property taxes annually.

"The community has been understanding," Price said. "But I don't think most people understand what a fire does to a community after it's gone."

Social service agencies have lent a helping hand, but underinsured residents are still struggling to rebuild their homes. Much of the relief funds have gone to the Show Low area or to Heber-Overgaard, Price said.

"Nobody knows where Linden is," Price said.

Many members of Linden's 25-person volunteer fire department took shelter at the fire station and watched their community burn, unable to battle the flames head-on.

Those memories still burn, and residents in Linden — and across the Rim — often blame environmental extremists for legal challenges that prevented forest-thinning measures used to reduce fire susceptibility.

"If they want their pristine, there it is," Brown said, thumbing toward charred, spindly trees surrounding his property. "Those of us who live here are all environmentalists. We just want our forest to be here."

Anger still boils up, and not just toward environmentalists.

Residents in Heber-Overgaard are still infuriated with Valinda Jo Elliott for starting the Chediski fire, and many blame the government for letting it spread.

Dick Potts was in a Forest Service lookout tower the day the Chediski broke out. It took hours, he said, for the government to send airplanes to attack the fire.

Meanwhile, he listened to different entities argue on the scanner, and he had a feeling the fire would take his house in Overgaard. He was right.

He and his wife, Gail, have already rebuilt a home looking onto the torched Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. But he scraped by for decades in the Air Force and then in the Scottsdale Police Department to build a house among the trees.

"That was the whole point of living up here," he said.

Steve Lillie, the man who threw a burnt log at a town meeting in July when a U.S. attorney announced that Elliott would not be charged for starting the fire, is serving 40 hours of community service for a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge.

Lillie started work again on the Overgaard Springs Cabins, a development of more than 30 cabins under construction when the fire overran Overgaard last summer.

He said he's not proud of letting his emotions boil up that day, but he, like many in Heber-Overgaard, wonder why Elliot went free and clear. She was charged with driving drunk in a separate incident in December.

"We live with it every day, and she just goes out and gets drunk," Lillie said.

"We're not devastated," Show Low Mayor Gene Kelley said.

Quite the contrary: Sales taxes are up 1.5 percent from last year to $5.6 million, according to city treasurer Ploughe. A Home Depot is opening and 68 more building permits have been issued than last year. "We're holding our own and showing some positive growth," Ploughe said.

Cliff Pettingill, a Realtor and co-owner of the KC Motel, said hotel business has been steady, but real estate has been stagnant.

"We didn't have an influx of calls from people wanting to sell and leave," he said. "But people are not looking, and they are not buying."

The economy, Pettingill suspects, "is more to blame for real estate sales than the fire."

The main hit to the town named for a hand of cards is tourism, Kelley said. Big Lake, Holly Lake — all of the high country attractions are still there, he said.

"Tourists either believe the attraction they are used to coming to is burnt up and gone, or that they themselves are afraid of fire," he said.

On the Fort Apache Indian Reservation south of Show Low, seeds that were supposed to help reforest land commercially logged by the White Mountain Apache Tribe now are being nurtured to help reforest tribal land devastated by last year’s fire.

The blaze blackened 270,000 acres of the reservation. It charred sacred Apache sites and accelerated the expected demise of the White Mountain Apaches’ timber industry, which provides 60 percent of the tribe’s income.

The Apache tribe’s two timber mills have been working double shifts to process salvaged wood, said Mary Classay, general manager of the Fort Apache Timber Co. But the salvage logs are likely to run out by October, eliminating the need for the Cibecue mill, a small operation in the heart of the burned area.

With the western side of the reservation heavily damaged, commercial timber cutting can only be done on the east side, and even there, harvestable logs are expected to run out in the next decade.

Ask Rim residents if they're scared of fire, and three reactions tend to pop out:

-- They're sanguine. In Pinedale, Larry Denton lost a car, bass boat, satellite dish, swimming pool and two homes. He's worried about another inferno descending on his 2 1/2-acre knoll but said, "There's not much you can do about it. If it catches on fire, it catches on fire."

-- They're mindful. Last year, Dana Sipes, a three-decade Show Low resident and county court clerk, didn't rake the pine needles around her house. "I sure did this year," she said.

-- They feel something that they can't place or shrug off. Lightning still makes Show Low resident Wendy Tedford nervous. "I think everybody's on pins and needles. Gun-shy, so to speak."

The fire charged a ridge behind Dirk Dick's Linden home, incinerating two adjacent houses and roaring to within 20 feet of his south wall before winds miraculously shifted.

He hasn't walked in the devastated forest since the Rodeo-Chediski. Why not?

"I don't know," the retired Border Patrol agent said.

Overgaard lost its most elegant restaurant in the Inn at the Ponderosa. Mesa resident and French food lover Michael Schlee opened the bed and breakfast in 2000, looking to indulge his softer side after decades in the corporate world. He and his wife, Carol, still rave about the 1-pound cream puffs and pork chops smoked in applewood chips on the menu.

They took a $300,000 loss in the fire despite insurance. They decided not to rebuild on the site, which Carol Schlee described as "a moonscape." Instead, they said, they'll remember the short time they had there.

"We've learned," Michael Schlee said, "that everything is for a season."

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