EAGAR, Ariz. – The woman in the plaid sundress apologized as she brushed tears from her face. For four days, Melissa Walker had put up a brave front — for her children, her friends, herself.
On Sunday that courage collapsed, trampled by the savage wildfire on a destructive march toward her home.
"This happens to other people," Walker said in disbelief as she wandered through a domed football stadium that had been turned into a Red Cross shelter 45 miles from her house in Show Low. "You just never think this is going to happen to you."
She is just one among 25,000 people forced to flee as two wildfires surged through drought-ravaged forests on a collision course with a half-dozen towns in eastern Arizona.
Many stayed with family and friends, or even strangers who opened their doors, and most hotels in towns within an hours drive of the area were booked. Yet more than 2,000 people sought refuge at three shelters on the outskirts of the destruction, anxiously awaiting word.
One by one, they flooded into high schools turned temporary homes, clutching keepsakes they feared could be all they have left. They cried and sought comfort in one another — friends, neighbors, strangers brought together by disaster and held together by hope.
"People are nervous and teary, not knowing what to expect — not even knowing where to go," said Marilyn Scher, who left her home in Pinetop on Thursday morning.
Since then, she has been helping to register other evacuees at the Eagar shelter, where the displaced sleep on cots in the middle of a domed football field. A large screen TV offers constant updates on the fire, while a nearby basketball court provides a much-need distraction for children.
Walker, 40, had noticed the darkening sky as she walked out of a Wal-Mart store on Tuesday. That night, as the smoke drifted closer to Show Low, her family started packing their motorhome with photos and clothes, even business files from the computer.
Twenty-four hours later, Walker, her husband and three teen-age children set up camp in the parking lot of the shelter at Round Valley High School, watching helplessly as the flames and smoke advanced on their town.
"This is probably going to drive everybody out. The economy is going to crash," worried Walker, who is studying nursing at a local college. Her husband is an accountant, with an office in downtown Show Low. "Our livelihood depends on everyone else's livelihood."
The Walkers returned home briefly on Saturday, when word from the fire lines offered hope that the blaze had slowed.
As the family got ready to leave once more, Walker's 16-year-old son, Kyle, insisted on staying behind — promising he'd leave if the flames got too close and go with friends to Phoenix. Later that night, fire officials ordered all homes evacuated.
On Sunday, Walker still hadn't heard from Kyle and fire was creeping nearer to Show Low.
At the shelter, Walked searched a message board for any word.
"Stay here. ... I will find you," one message read. "Call your family!" ordered another. But there was nothing from Kyle.
Then came the news she had feared: At a morning briefing in the high school cafeteria, the Forest Service told residents the blaze was expected to reach Show Low by midday. As a gasp went through the crowd, an elderly woman lifted her glasses to wipe her eyes — and Melissa Walker burst into tears.
"I haven't crashed, and this is it," she said, admitting her courage had finally faded.
"Right from the start with this fire, people just had bad feelings," she said. "We're fortunate, living here in Arizona, that we don't have to worry about earthquakes or tornadoes, but we fear wildfires."
With each passing hour, for the Walkers and others, that fear only grows worse.