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Chapter 4-Heber/Overgaard:Rising from the ashes BY Jordan gLENN

HEBER/OVERGAARD — As the blood-red sun set over the smoke-filled community of Heber/Overgaard, the crackling voice of the Navajo County sheriff echoed throughout the town to police and fire crews.

Sheriff Gary Butler’s cruiser was severely damaged — a result of a collision with a massive bull elk, obscured from view due to the black, fog-like smoke provided by the growing Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

The surreal incident seemed a portent for the catastrophic effects of the biggest fire in state history, burning so hot and fast no one could stop it. The fire would forever change the communities in his path — especially seemingly idyllic Heber — which 15 years later has not fully shaken off the effects of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

The skies above Heber/Overgaard provided a yellow and orange backdrop to the falling ash from the fire.

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.

Ron Tenney
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"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.”

Residents of the area leave town after evacuation orders are announced

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.'”

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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.

For the residents of Overgaard who had fallen in love with the green forest that once surrounded the area, the destruction was too vast to consider rebuilding.

“Had that fire never happened, we’d probably see a difference in Heber/Overgaard in terms of the economy,” he said. “Right after that fire, we had the recession. And when the logging industry left us because of environmental issues, then our little communities relied a lot on summer visitors.

“There was a time before, when construction companies were just building home after home after home for summer people and the area was kind of booming. Once [the fire] happened, it just jerked the rug right out from underneath the construction companies. To this day, a lot of them haven’t even come back.”

A 2004 case study of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire by North Carolina State University researchers concluded the virtual shutdown of the timber industry in the region left an ever-thicker, fire-prone forest. Since the fire, one of the few thinning services in the area, Mogollon Tree Service, has seen its clientele change from the U.S. Forest Service and commercial businesses to almost exclusively private property owners, according to the NCSU study.

In the three years following the fire, Navajo County issued more building permits to Heber/Overgaard than any other community, averaging between 250 and 500 a year. But the 2008 recession knocked down whatever progress the town had dramatically made. Local business owners can only hope building will eventually resume.

Tenney still sees the impact of the fire.

“My personal belief is — and some might disagree with me — is that we’re still seeing the consequences of that fire," he said. "Everything is gradually coming back, but I don’t know that it is fully back yet. It may never be the same.”

Residents sort through the debris and ash of their former home after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire

Spark by Pia Wyer & Jordan Glenn

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