Only one week prior, the area's 12,000 summer visitors found themselves facing a world of fear and ash, lifelong resident Roy Tenney, then a school principal, recalled.
"I guess, initially, it wasn’t too big of a concern to most folks. We were kind of used to burns happening and they never go too far. When the time came and the evacuation order was issued, it became an interesting psychological experience as well. The mental stress of everything from talking to the family [to] determining what stays and what goes takes its toll.”
Concerned about their houses, a small group of men stayed behind while everyone in the town evacuated, including Tenney’s family. Volunteering in the hotel, where firefighters sought even the slightest break from combat, Tenney and his brother saw the external and internal conflicts that arose among fire crews over the next two weeks. For many in the hotel, the area outside was a war zone, a dark wasteland, and in Tenney’s words, “a place off-earth, similar to that of the moon.”
Despite bulldozer lines and firefighter efforts, flames from “The Monster” consumed 268 structures in Overgaard. Upon seeing the devastation, many in the community insisted the U.S. Forest Service hadn’t done enough to save their homes.
“A feeling that arose in the community, at the time, was that there wasn’t a sense of urgency from the U.S. Forest Service and those in charge,” Tenney said. “Had the forest been managed properly from the beginning, then you probably wouldn’t have seen that big of a fire. Because of environmental pressures, influences and lobbyists that come in from the Sierra Club and others … areas that require logging and thinning that these forests need to keep healthy, it was the public who also contributed to this ‘perfect storm.'”
A New Start
Starting July 6, 2002, residents of the area returned and began rebuilding. However, many never returned — especially among the 60 percent of residents with second homes there. Ugly burn scars had replaced much of the beauty that had attracted them.
“You look at [Heber/Overgaard] now and, for the most part, it looks like it’s come back and people slowly moved in, years later. You plant new trees and different things to try and get it as close as possible to what it used to be,” Tenney said.
Driving through the area 15 years later, few visible scars remain. But the wounds remain on the economy and in the minds of the residents.