EDITOR’S NOTE: Cheryl Tupper and her husband, Gary Wallen, own the T-Bird Café in Peeples Valley. After the Yarnell Hill Fire devastated the area and claimed the lives of 19 firefighters, Tupper contacted Arizona Highways to share her account of the fire and its aftermath. Read her story here, and learn more about the T-Bird Café in our November issue.
June 30 is scarred into our minds and our communities. At 2 p.m., we were thinking we’d dodged the bullet, and that the small brush fire I could see out my front door would become nothing more than that. 2 a.m. found me awake, watching a line of the last of my neighbors leaving everything behind them, and praying for the 19 young men on the hill.
We’d heard about the radio call that they were deploying fire shields, and we’d held onto hope. “Please let these young men, these heroes, be all right … please!” cried my friend, shaking.
I was standing outside when the wind changed. It had been a slow, steady wind from the south, blowing the fire into the trap set for it: a break set up to protect the residential part of Peeples Valley. Then, all of a sudden, monsoon winds from the north drove the fire back toward Yarnell at speeds of up to 22 feet per second.
My stepson, whose house was one of the first to be destroyed, says his evacuation was the most stressful thing he’s ever been through. Trying to get his roommate’s freaked-out little dog into the car, he looked up and saw a wall of fire descending on his house. He and his roommates ran for their lives — embers falling on them, fumbling to start the car, neighbors all trying to navigate the smoke-filled, winding path out of Glen Ilah.
Next door, his older sister was getting their mother out. From her perspective, it was a ball of fire coming straight at them. They barely escaped, with singed hair and without the cat.
Then came a frantic call from our youngest, just graduated from high school. She hadn’t had time to get her dogs. She’d tried. She’d borrowed large carriers and had them all set out. But at the end, there hadn’t been time.
Later came the terrible news of the 19 fallen firefighters.
Our home and café were not in immediate danger, so we stayed behind with our next-door neighbors, veterinarians, to help out as we could. They helped care for displaced animals. We fed people until we ran out of food.
Red Cross and Christian and Buddhist relief workers offered immediate shelter and support; housewives collected and distributed donated goods; and everybody with a strong back helped fill the 30,000 sandbags we’ll need when monsoon rains hit our ravaged landscape.
As webmaster for our community website, I worked through those awful first days to transform the site into an emergency resource, so my far-flung community might find some common ground and know where to turn for help.
The communities of Yarnell, Glen Ilah and Peeples Valley (the Tri-Cities, we laughingly call them) will never be the same. According to the sheriff’s survey, the fire destroyed homes at 129 addresses in these tiny towns. But we have already started rebuilding. And while the community has been flung apart, it has also been brought together. My extended family here is now tighter than ever.
—Noah Austin, Associate Editor
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