ROUND VALLEY — They should have seen it coming from 30 years off.
Instead, the evacuation of thousands of people streamed out of their homes with a few hours notice, packing the bits and pieces of their lives they could fit in a car and fleeing the lurid pillars of flame and smoke bearing down on their communities.
At least 13,000 evacuees checked in the Round Valley Dome in late June 2002, as residents living in and around the Rim communities of Pinedale, Heber/Overgaard, and later Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside, fled the towering flames of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
Miles-long lines of cars carrying the evacuees with a few hastily gathered possessions and their pets rolled into Eagar on Arizona Highway 260 and Springerville on US 60. The two small communities with a combined population of barely 7,000 did their best to comfort people who feared they would never see their homes again.
The evacuees had precious little time to prepare, since none of the communities had an emergency plan. The first evacuees who arrived in Round Valley depended primarily upon the help of their White Mountain neighbors to the east, not government or nonprofit agencies.
“We hadn’t gone through any emergency planning or anything. It was more, ‘How can we help them?’” remembered Steve West, town manager for Springerville. In 2002, he was Springerville’s chief of police.
Eagar’s Round Valley Dome — the only domed high school sports complex in the country with a footprint of 189,000 square feet — was an obvious choice to house the evacuees that arrived between June 19-22, 2002.
“At the time, this was the normal place for them to be. It was far enough away and offered enough protection … with the Dome. We knew we could handle a lot of the people that came over,” he said.
The Eagar and Springerville police stopped people as they came into town to direct them. The first night, however, evacuees stayed in the high school gym before being moved to the Dome. They had no cots, blankets or emergency supplies. Residents of the two towns immediately stepped up and began bringing in their spare beds, cots and bedding for those who had nowhere else to sleep but the hard gym floor.
“The Red Cross stepped in (after) a day and a half, maybe two days later, and started getting supplies in,” West said.
Until they could get there, town officials contacted the Arizona Department of Corrections, which sent a load of cots and other supplies. Volunteers arrived, too, some from as far away as the Phoenix area bringing home-cooked food for the evacuees.
When the Red Cross arrived, they took over operations and moved everyone into the Dome. They brought in needed supplies and used the school kitchens to prepare meals. Evacuees and their families were registered and received bracelets. National Guard troops arrived to assist with security and other issues at the Dome and across the communities.
Bruce Ray, interim town manager for Eagar, has worked in every town department during his career. At the time of Rodeo-Chediski Fire, he was the community development director. The town put him in charge of logistics.
“My job was to interface with the Red Cross and the school district … the biggest job was the process of getting everyone fed,” he said.
That meant long days, starting at 4-5 a.m. and running until 10-11 p.m., attending fire briefings, organizing food donations and volunteers, and just responding to any needs the Red Cross or the evacuees had.
Everything began arriving by the truckload, such as electric fans — the Dome is not air-conditioned — canned water from Anheuser-Busch Brewery, fresh groceries and meat from stores in the evacuation area. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated toiletry kits to evacuees. The Arizona Cattle Growers donated an enormous amount of meat.
Finding volunteers for many tasks, like unloading trucks, was also part of Ray’s job, but getting help was not a problem.
“One phone call and the network would take over,” he said.
People in the community stepped up to volunteer with the Red Cross at the Dome, and some opened their own homes to evacuees
“That’s what impressed me most … what people did in the community,” Ray said.
The ill and the elderly, evacuated from nursing homes and care facilities, were housed at the LDS Stake Center in Eagar and at White Mountain Regional Medical Center. Local medical professionals and volunteers with medical training appeared to help care for those in need. Some people had evacuated without needed prescription medicines, so local doctors and pharmacies stepped in to ensure people received their medications.
Again, community residents stepped in to meet the needs of others. People brought their recliner chairs to the Stake Center for the elderly and handicapped to make them more comfortable.