Wildfire Moves On, but Arizona Town Deals With the Aftermath

BY Michel Marizco and Fronteras  July 4, 2013 at 12:20 PM EDT

Firefighter Cody Harwood attends the candlelight vigil in honor of the 19 fallen firefighters in Prescott, Arizona on July 2. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Federal officials say the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire is nearly half contained, but in just a few days it managed to kill 19 firefighters and damage at least 129 homes.

The people who evacuated from the devastated town of Yarnell are growing anxious to go home.

Over the next few days, Yarnell residents will begin to trickle back into their town. Fire officials reluctantly said perhaps as soon as Saturday.

It won’t be soon enough for Arlon Rice. He learned his own home is safe. But not his town.

“Our little street, which is Post right below the post office, is intact. A block over, a block behind, is a whole different story,” Rice said.

Rice is an older man with bright eyes and a white beard. He moved to Yarnell 20 years ago. He serves on the fire board; his partner on the water district. They love their tiny town, where 650 people once lived.

But right now it’s a love tinged with worry. Wednesday morning Rice met with other fire board members to begin the long, complicated task of making Yarnell liveable again.

Gary Hatch is president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association. He came to warn Rice and the board what to expect.

“You are going to become known as the community that 19 firefighters died in,” Hatch said. “You are already seeing it on the patch that the [Arizona] Diamondbacks have, the Yarnell 19. Every time you look at that it could hurt. But it could also help.”

Photo Courtesy Bruce Charles

Even with the fire still burning a mile and a half from town, what happens next to Yarnell, its image, and its people will depend on how many move back, said the town’s fire chief Jim Koile.

Koile himself doesn’t live in Yarnell. He describes a poor town made up of seniors and retirees.

“They also live in sometimes homes that are not in very good condition or now are gone. So I’m not sure what’s going to happen to a lot of the people,” he said.

You’ll hear this description quite a bit 30 miles north in Prescott. That’s where most of the evacuees fled to when the fire exploded. You’ll hear it described as a town with a grade school but not enough students to fill it. It’s a town surrounded by boulders, chaparral, desert scrub and old ghost towns. Its roads and homes were built on old mine tailings.

A favorite spot, the shrine of St. Joseph, survived the fire. Some of its nearby retreat buildings did not.

Rice, the fire board president, was at one of many community briefings, when he described his town this way:

“We call it the home of the strays, the grays, and the gays,” he said, laughing.

But Rice worries. And he hopes those Phoenix motorcycle clubs that love to go roaring up Highway 89 and stop in Yarnell will soon come back.

“World, don’t forget us. If you can’t do anything materially, pray for us. I don’t care how you do it. It doesn’t make any difference,” Rice said. “If you’re driving along and you hear this, just help us out that way. We’re tough. And we’ll be all right. We’ll be all right.”

This story was reported by the Fronteras: Changing Americas Desk, a multimedia collaboration among seven public radio stations. It is led by KJZZ in Phoenix and KPBS in San Diego and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of its Local Journalism Center initiative.


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