HEBER-OVERGAARD, Ariz. Thousands of firefighters from across the country battled for 19 days against one of the largest wildfires in U.S. history, and some locals here faced the massive wall of flames to save their own homes.
What began as two separate fires the Rodeo fire and the Chediski fire merged to form a raging inferno as drought-stricken trees fed the blaze and plumes of smoke rose thousands of feet into the air. For days there was no containment as it rapidly grew, eventually burning an area larger than the city of Los Angeles.
As the fire closed in on the town of Heber, founded by early LDS settlers and named in honor of the seventh president of the Church, Heber J. Grant, and its adjoining community of Overgaard, residents were evacuated, but some decided to take a stand here against the monster.
In that fight to save their homes emerged two unlikely heroes 18-year-old Kandra Greer and 19-year-old Kim Williams of the Heber 2nd Ward, Taylor Arizona Stake.
Kandra, who graduated from high school in May and plans to attend college in the fall on a volleyball scholarship, took a firefighting summer job with the forest service. She thought it would help her keep in shape and earn some decent money.
A friend in her ward, Kim Williams, had worked there the year before putting out small spot fires during the summer and decided to come back for her second year.
After four days of classes on fighting fires and using the equipment, Kandra went to work. The first fire she faced was the state's largest fire in history.
As the fire approached their nearly deserted town, Kandra, Kim and veteran forest firefighter Rocky Nelson, of the Heber 1st Ward, the only three local LDS Forest Service firefighters, were waiting for assignments at the Ranger Station. They were listening to CB radios and heard chatter about the fire advancing into Heber and that some of the locals in Buckskin Canyon were refusing to leave and were risking their lives. Those men included both Kandra's and Kim's fathers.
"We had to go," Kandra said. "We didn't want to give up everything." Both Kandra and Kim had grown up in their homes in Buckskin Canyon.
The three firefighters grabbed their equipment and drove up the canyon, where the young womens' fathers were, as well as 13 other LDS men who prepared to fight for their homes. The men had gathered earlier for prayer and had asked for help. "The wind was not in their favor," recalled Kandra. Soon the winds shifted, buying the group some more time.
Kanda recalled that as they drove toward their homes, other firefighters were retreating from the fire. "We were locals and we were not leaving," Kim recalled. "Here we took a stand," said Kandra. "We put our lives on the line."
Soon the other firefighters returned. "I think they might have felt guilty for leaving us," she said. "Pretty soon we had probably 10 trucks up there helping." The firefighters were instrumental in saving many homes and aggressively fought the fire.
From there, other help began falling into place. Bulldozers arrived, helping cut fire lines that eventually would be a mile long. Also, slurry bombers aided the fight, and although thick black smoke covered the neighborhood and flames burned within one-quarter of a mile from the Greer home, the fire line held.
Stopping the fire at Buckskin Canyon saved hundreds of homes that would have been in jeopardy, had the fire burned farther through Heber.
They continued fighting spot fires but by Saturday night the group knew that their homes were safe. With gratitude in their hearts, the small group met for sacrament meeting the next day, June 30. Bishop Ron Squire, of the Heber 2nd Ward, who also had fought for his home in Buckskin Canyon, conducted the testimony meeting.
"It was one of the best meetings that I've ever been to," said Kandra. "You usually don't see these men cry, but they did out of gratitude."
Although hundreds lost their homes to the fire in the Heber-Overgaard area, hundreds more were saved. Kandra and Kim both said they saw for themselves many houses spared as the fire skipped around and, in many cases, was stopped at the door.
"There were so many miracles," said Kandra. "It has strengthened my testimony because there were so many immediate answers to prayers."
Knowing now what she didn't know then, Kandra said she's still glad she took the summer job. "I wouldn't have seen it all for myself," she said. "I actually saw these miracles happen and I wouldn't trade that for anything."