Photo by Les Bowen.
Originally Published: June 17, 2016 6:33 a.m.
YARNELL – As the Tenderfoot Fire approaches full containment in the hills miles outside town, residents of Yarnell are returning to their normal routine.
That is, as normal as can be expected in a town where the newly blackened hillsides serve as a reminder of the catastrophic events of the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.
“Why did it happen here again?” asked Helen Stratton, who works at the Yarnell Emporium. “Once is more than enough. I’m stunned by what it looks like.”
But for a town that’s been through this once before, she said residents returned as quick as they could once the evacuation order lifted.
“It’s business as usual until you start thinking about it,” Stratton said.
For some, this is their first time dealing with wildfire in Yarnell.
Luis Neri purchased two properties where fire destroyed homes in 2013. He’s not a full-time resident yet, as he spends a few weeks here and there living in a trailer on the property.
Neri was at home outside Phoenix when he heard the news of last week’s wildfire.
But he said he has no intention of changing his mind about his plans for a home in Yarnell.
“The town reminded me of the town I grew up in as a little boy,” Neri said.
Yarnell residents said they were pleased by the response of firefighters and other emergency responders.
“It wasn’t as bad as last time,” said four-year resident Chris Johnson, who owns Yarnell Family Diner. He said evacuees had more time to gather personal belongings before leaving.
But once he saw the flames on the hillsides, he didn’t stick around to find out what would happen.
“We didn’t even wait this time,” he said. “We just left. There was like a motorcade going to Congress.”
He and his girlfriend spent three nights in Wickenburg.
“It’s kind of a nightmare when you see this again,” Johnson said.
He was worried at what he would find upon his return, and questioned whether he would be able to reopen the diner.
Three years ago, he had to throw away nearly all his inventory. This time, the power outage was short enough that his freezers and refrigerators kept cold.
Whether it was Arizona Public Service restoring electrical service, sheriff’s deputies who enforced the mandatory evacuations or the firefighters on the fire line, residents said they were pleased at the response.
“What I’m hearing the most is how proud they are of the firefighters,” said Sally Rappolt, bartender at American Legion Post 79.
“You felt taken care of,” she said. “This town is very proud of them.”
Those who stayed saw their town completely transformed for days.
“The town was deserted,” Stratton said.
When people returned Saturday, they were told to stay home, so that deserted sense lasted a few more days – except for firefighters and others who were there for the fire.
“It was overwhelming the amount of activity,” Stratton said. “I was stunned by the amount of firefighters present.
“I will never be able to say anything bad about the Police Department, Sheriff’s Office or (Department of Public Safety).”