EDITOR’S NOTE: Tomorrow, June 28, is the one-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters and devastated the Yarnell area.
Makeshift signs, banners and ribbons were the first things I noticed the day my husband and I returned to Yarnell after the fire. Purple ribbons fluttered from fences and light poles. Banners with the number 19 hung from windows. Residents spray-painted bed sheets, planks and cardboard with the words “Thank You Firefighters.”
My husband and I live outside Yarnell but consider it our “town.” It’s where we get mail, visit the library and gather with friends. Gerald sits on the chamber of commerce. We’re active in the community garden. Naturally, we agreed to serve the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group.
But on this trip, we came to help a friend. Gerald sifted through ashes, keeping our friend’s 85-year-old father company while I drove her to the hastily organized assistance centers.
Our friend had moved into her Glen Ilah home so recently she hadn’t finished unpacking. Or getting insurance. Like many of her neighbors, she fled with her father as flames engulfed her home, obliterating all her possessions and means of support.
Once home, she wasn’t sure she could think clearly, know what questions to ask or remember what she was told. I served as her eyes and ears that day.
In Glen Ilah, I could hardly tell where I was, with familiar landmarks destroyed. The phrase “reduced to rubble” came to mind. Everywhere I looked, twisted metal protruded from the wreckage, punctuated by orphaned chimneys and the occasional stone or block wall. I remember thinking this is what a war zone must look like.
During our rounds, our friend collected non-perishable food, a referral to a temporary donation center, two gift cards for $25 each and a bucket of cleaning supplies — intended to clean what, I didn’t know. She had no idea what came next. None of us did. We only knew Yarnell would never be the same.
The fire had left about a quarter of the community homeless. The water co-op, which had struggled before the fire, suffered about $2 million in damage and lost a third of its customers. Fire-related expenses strained the Yarnell Fire District’s budget to the breaking point. It reeled from the loss of a quarter of its tax base, as did Model Creek School, which serves Yarnell and Peeples Valley.
The Shrine of St. Joseph, the area’s only tourist attraction, lost its gift shop and retreat center — damage estimated at $1 million but insured for far less. And the entire community suffered a collective trauma, made unbearable by the loss of 19 lives. Many wondered if Yarnell could recover.
Yarnell and Peeples Valley date to the late 19th century. The area’s first post office opened in Peeples Valley in 1875 and moved to Yarnell in 1892. Yarnell became a mining town — named for Harrison Yarnell, who struck gold near Antelope Peak—and a stage stop. Until Interstate 17 opened, anyone traveling to Phoenix from Flagstaff or Prescott passed through. It evolved into a community of about 650, many of the residents retired. Ranches dominated the broad plains of Peeples Valley. Ranch land still surrounds the community of 430, consisting largely of retirees and part-timers.
In their long history, Yarnell and Peeples Valley never incorporated. Independent and self-sufficient, residents organized fire departments and built a library and community center. So it wasn’t surprising, really, that the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group organized before officials lifted the evacuation, its volunteers drawn from the organizations that got things done.
“I think Yarnell worked because there’s no government here,” says Linda Ma, a former San Francisco employee who served that community after the 1989 earthquake. “[Yarnell] didn’t get tied down in bureaucracy and rules and regulations. We just did what we had to do.”
Even so, any hope of recovery would have been impossible without the outpouring of aid from around the world.
The Yarnell Hill Recovery Group received more than $1.5 million and 50,000 hours of volunteer labor, not counting the considerable hours logged by its own volunteers. The United Way opened a Prescott warehouse to accommodate the gifts of clothing, furniture and appliances the community couldn’t store.
Contributions filled the old round gym in Wickenburg — twice. After the donations committee sent as much to the United Way warehouse as it could hold, the rest was offered for donations at a massive garage sale that generated $6,000 for the recovery. What was left filled two large trucks—their contents sold by the pound.
That’s to say nothing of major gifts to the Yarnell Water Co-Op, the Yarnell and Peeples Valley fire departments and the Shrine of St. Joseph.
Today, our friend and the other affected uninsured primary homeowners are living in houses financed with donations and built largely with volunteer labor. These account for nine of the 42 homebuilding permits issued for Yarnell since the fire — about a third of the residences destroyed.
Some residents left, but more stayed. And the fire brought in new people and businesses. Three shops have opened in Yarnell since the fire. Yarnell Homes owner Mike Manone came as a volunteer and stayed, becoming active in the community. His construction company was the first to break ground after the fire and has rebuilt two homes for insured homeowners. He’s buying lots and developing cabins to market in the Valley.
Yet for all the physical progress, the emotional recovery has been slower, as residents walk through the stages that accompany loss: denial, anger, bargaining. Knowing 19 firefighters lost their lives compounds their sorrow. Many feel survivors’ guilt, and shame for grieving their losses when 19 young men died.
For many, it’s been hard to accept help. That was true for Ma, YHRG’s volunteer-committee chair who now serves on the steering committee.
She recalls inspecting her property with a neighbor when two women asked if they had lost their homes. When they said they had, the women gave them each five $100 bills.
“It took everything in me to give myself permission to receive,” she says. “We just started crying. How could you not?”
“Something happens in a disaster,” she adds. “People drop their self-centeredness, and there’s this openness. We’re transformed. We’re all connected by this experience. And I think the town is forever changed.”
Kathy Montgomery is a regular contributor to Arizona Highways.
Yarnell will honor the 19 fallen firefighters with two services — Sunday, June 29, at 1 p.m., and Monday, June 30, at 4 p.m. — at the future site of the Yarnell Hill Fire Memorial Park on State Route 89 at Shrine Road. For more information, visit www.YarnellHillRecoveryGroup.org.