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On Friday, the fire definitely had everyone’s attention. It had jumped numerous containment lines and continued its march up the Rim.
Plumes towered over Show Low, and colors and shapes of all sorts were revealed as the sun tracked through. A WMI reader in Linden took a photo of the smoke, showing the face of a monster on the eastern front.
A furious attempt at backburning was made to keep the fire from heading east toward Show Low. I stopped packing from time to time to go outside and watch the plumes. From my Show Low home, I could see columns of dark smoke (meaning fresh fuel was burning) rising on the eastern flank. This was smoke from the backburns intended to take fuel away from “The Monster.”
The public was briefed on what to take in case of evacuation, which became more likely by the minute. CellularOne gave out cell phones and I got one so I could notify my family that we were OK.
The U.S. Forest Service had a trigger point that would determine if Show Low, Linden, and Pinetop-Lakeside would have to be evacuated. That trigger point was Hop Canyon.
On Saturday morning, we learned that the fire had once again breached containment lines. If the fire got into Hop Canyon, we would all have to leave.
On Saturday afternoon the order came and 20,000 more residents filed out of town. Most were headed to Round Valley and the Dome. Others went to St. Johns, Holbrook, Payson and Phoenix.
I went to the office, packed my computer, and made one more trip to our new place east of Lakeside. For a time, we wondered if the evacuation order meant us as well. On Sunday morning, we took one more shower and headed to Springerville, where The Independent office there would be our new home.
Our cats knew something was not right. I drove the car with our old Maine Coon, Natty, in my lap. My wife drove our pickup with our other two cats, one wailing and one drooling, in a pet carrier.
We arrived at our Springerville office early Sunday and I began to set up my computer. The place was a menagerie of employees, family members and pets of several species.
News of the fire’s intensity, now a complex after the Rodeo Fire merged with the Chediski Fire to the west, was now being spread nationally and internationally. TV news reported “400-foot flame heights,” and that a “50-mile wide wall of flames” threatened the area. Back home in Mississippi, a church congregation prayed for “Show Low, where Andy Staten now lives.”
Appetite for news replaces panic
Later on Sunday, I did my sports pages for the next Tuesday issue with Natty still in my lap, taking it all in stride.
My family was to be staying with a friend in Luna, N.M. Larisa Bogardus, our Apache County Editor then, offered her home for our cats to stay while we ate dinner.
It was at Booga Reds’ Restaurant, after I placed my order, that my guts finally let go of the stress. Finally, I felt I had done all I could do. I nearly wept before consuming a meal of liver and onions — real comfort food.
Then it was on to Luna, which was out of the smoke. Our friend had a pump house for the cats to stay in. She had three watchdogs that followed me out every time I went to feed the cats. As they stood at the door, the dogs all seemed to ask, “Are they for me?”
With my sports beat no longer important, I felt a bit lost amid the newsroom chaos. I took the animal beat during evacuation. Birds and mammals of many species, both wild and domestic, sought relief from the fire. The United States Humane Society had a big rig stationed in Eagar with veterinarians, pet carriers and other supplies and services should anyone be in need. The Round Valley Rodeo Grounds accommodated a good number of horses and other livestock.
In St. Johns, the Apache County Fairgrounds offered even more of a home away from home. Horses, cows, goats, llamas — you name it — found ample food, water, shelter and love.
While we were evacuated, we awaited any scrap of new information on the fire. We also heard lots of rumors.
When I was at the fairgrounds, I was talking to a welder from Lakeside who asked me, “Did you hear about the revolt?”
After I said “no,” he explained that a BIA firefighter and “a few other firefighters from the mountain” had “commandeered” some heavy equipment and cut a fire line on the eastern flank during the night. This wasn’t part of the plan.
I reported this to the newspaper staff and in the coming days we would learn more about that revolt.
We also heard that fire had swept through Timberland Acres west of Linden. Tock and one of our ad representatives, Steve Taylor — better known for his Western paintings — lived in Timberland Acres. Some 98 homes in Timberland Acres were burned by sundown on Saturday, including those of two Show Low police officers and two Linden firefighters, all of whom were on duty. By this time, the fire had burned nearly a quarter million acres and had consumed 260 homes and other structures.
Tom Schafer was our embedded photographer in the fire area. When he brought his film over, everyone wanted news — what had burned and what hadn’t? Through second-hand information, Schafer thought that Taylor’s house had burned. Taylor, who left behind a wealth of paintings, tried to keep it together.
“It’s just pigment on paper,” he said, trying to downplay the loss.
The Rodeo and Chediski fires had officially merged on Sunday, June 23, 2002, hours after The Monster tore through parts of Heber/Overgaard.