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Chapter 3-The evacuation of Show low BY LAURA SINGLETON

“There is nothing that can describe the feeling of when you are told that you have to leave your home and you’re not sure what will be there when you come back.”

Those are the words of Gene Kelley, who served as mayor of Show Low during the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002.

Kelley was one of three community leaders directly involved in the June 22, 2002, evacuation of Show Low.

Declared a national disaster on June 25, 2002, by President George W. Bush, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire was the largest fire in Arizona history. It was also the fourth-largest fire in the United States, burning 468,130 acres of forest and nearly 1 billion ponderosa pine trees. More than 25,000 people were evacuated from various communities in the White Mountains, including more than 5,000 people from Show Low.

The Show Low evacuation continued for 6 1/2 days. During this time, Show Low police reported no accidents or injuries. In fact, multiple agencies described the initial evacuation with words such as “orderly,” “smooth,” "calm" and “respectful." Despite what many report as a “flawless” community evacuation, there is no denying the amount of raw emotion woven through every action before, during and after such an event.

Show Low Chief of Police John A. Corder, Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler and Kelley worked in tandem with many entities to develop and implement the evacuation of Show Low during the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. Corder, Butler and Kelley worked tirelessly to inform, manage and protect their communities during this event.

Corder said planning and communication were the main reasons for the smooth evacuation.

“We started informing the public of the potential to evacuate, as well as what to do,” he said. “We created a plan with maps, emergency kit lists and evacuation routes. The newspaper and media helped us get the word out. We did ongoing training and education for about two months. We pushed it hard so that, when the time came, people responded without hesitation.”

"The town responded extremely well,” Kelley said, echoing Corder. “I think it was because of the credibility that all the emergency services personnel had with the public — and the training and preparation that we did minimized some of the unknowns for our residents.”

As prepared and organized as the residents and the community leaders were, the actual sight of hundreds of vehicles traveling east in all four lanes of traffic on the Deuce of Clubs was remarkable. Corder, Butler and Kelley felt prepared for the evacuation of Show Low, but continue to acknowledge the emotional impact such an event has on people.

On Saturday, June 22, 2002, the Rodeo Fire reached Juniper Ridge and was working its way toward Hop Canyon, which had been identified by the fire management team as a critical evacuation trigger point.

At 6:30 p.m. that same day, the fire entered Hop Canyon, which set in motion the evacuation order for the City of Show Low.

Butler described the landscape just prior to initiating the evacuation order.

“We could see the flames of the fire above the trees. Then the flames blew over the top of the fire tower in Linden. It went upward in a big ball and dropped down on us,” he said. “That’s when I got a hold of fire command and said, ‘Let's evacuate. Give the order.’”

Kelley and Corder already had the official Order of Evacuation typed up on City of Show Low letterhead. All that was required were the signatures and a date. It read as follows:

ORDER OF EVACUATION

The Rodeo Fire is at a point where it is presenting a considerable danger to our citizens and visitors. For this reason, we are initiating an evacuation order for all persons in the City of Show Low. People should evacuate these areas immediately and not re-enter until this order is rescinded. The evacuation center for Show Low is at the Round Valley High School in Eagar. When you leave your house or residence, please leave a white towel or rag tied to your door that is visible from the front of the residence. If you are in this affected area, please leave at once in an orderly manner. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

There were three evacuation teams coordinating the mission. One team was led by the Show Low police sergeants and two additional teams were led by the Navajo County sheriff sergeants. The teams were tasked with evacuating the entire City of Show Low and adjacent Navajo County areas while keeping the roadways open.

Corder, Butler and Kelley and family shared some of their thoughts during the evacuation:

"We evacuated the whole town in about four hours. We gave the order a little after noon on June 22, 2002. By 4:45 p.m., the town was empty,” Corder said. "The emotions ran the gamut for all of us. We were concerned for our homes, our kids, our property, our livestock and our future."

One of Corder’s strongest memories of the fire, he said, was going outside the police department building and praying to God for his kids.

“I said, ‘Please help them get through this traumatic event.’”

Butler said his responsibility at the time was to protect the population and property of Navajo County residents.

“My wife didn’t know where I was most of the time,” he said. “She couldn’t even get a hold of me. And, even if she could reach me, I couldn’t help her from where I was.”

The evacuation took a heavier toll on the parents of Gail Butler, the sheriff’s wife.

"It was so hard on my mom and dad. It started a lot of health problems,” she said. “When you are older, you are exhausted to think about starting over. I don’t think my parents ever fully recovered their full health after evacuating.”

But the Butlers continued to pack their vehicles with whatever could fit.

"My nephew drove up to our house and saw our cars loaded,” Gail Butler said. “He told me he couldn’t stop thinking about how sad it was that this could be all we will have left — what we have in the car."

Sheriff Butler, however, wasn’t as fearful about losing the family’s home as others may have been.

“Maybe it was because I was there from day one and could see from the helicopter that they had it under control,” he said. “I had confidence in the fire command. But, then there were times when I would see the flames cresting over the hill. That’s when I started drawing new house plans.”

According to Diane Kelley, the former mayor’s wife, the Red Cross became concerned when not as many evacuees as were expected made it to the Round Valley Dome, where a temporary shelter was established.

“They found out later that it was because the residents of Springerville, Eagar, Round Valley, St. Johns and Vernon had opened their homes up to people,” she said. “Entire families, pets, everything.”

As emotional and traumatic as leaving as evacuation can be, much was learned in the process. Corder, Butler and Kelley, and their respective teams, were extremely appreciative of people's willingness to cooperate throughout the evacuation process.

The trio witnessed events that forever changed them. To this day, they have unusual perspectives about the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, evacuation and recovery. However, they share the sentiment that evacuating a home is traumatic.

Diane Kelley said a certain amount of faith in a higher power was required in getting through such an event.

“This community bonded together that summer. People who didn’t live here don't know the miracle that God did for this community,” she said. “Somehow, the wind changed direction, the humidity went up and God brought the fire down to the ground, where the crews were able to fight it.”

Spark by Pia Wyer & Jordan Glenn

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