FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (AP) – In a small enclave in northern Arizona, where homes are nestled in a Ponderosa pine forest and tourists delight in camping, hiking and quad biking, high winds are nothing new.
But when those winds picked up recently and sent what was a small forest fire hurtling toward their homes, residents of the Girls Ranch neighborhood near Flagstaff were faced with a dilemma: quickly grab what they could and flee, or stay behind and try. avoid the high and erratic flames.
Most of the owners left. One couple stood their ground. Another ran to save animals on neighbors’ properties.
The fire that started on Easter Sunday swept through vacant lots, scorched tree stumps and cast an orange glow across the parched landscape. The flames reached the corner of one woman’s porch and destroyed two other homes, leaving a mosaic of charred earth as the 77-square-kilometer blaze finally approached full containment this weekend.
Elsewhere, firefighters in northern New Mexico on Sunday continued to fight the biggest active wildfire in the US as strong winds pushed it closer to the small town of Las Vegas.
Officials said the fire had damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures since it started on April 6 and merged with another wildfire a week ago. Officials said the fire had grown to 419 square kilometers but was still 30% contained.
The blazes are among many this spring that have forced panicked residents to make snappy life-and-death, fight-or-flight decisions as wildfire season heats up in the western US. Years of hotter, drier weather have exacerbated the flames, causing them to often burn larger areas and for longer periods of time compared to previous decades.
Some who live in Rancho das Garotas only had a few minutes to react.
Polly Velie ran out of a physical therapy appointment when she learned her home was in the evacuation zone. She sped through embers and thick smoke to find her husband washing the sidewalk. Her voice screamed as she screamed over the smoke alarms that sounded throughout the house.
“Bill, we have to go!” she screamed.
But Bill Velie — who cut fire lines with a bulldozer in several states for years — intended to stay. It’s the same decision the couple made in 2010, when another wildfire in the area forced evacuations. Polly Velie said she’s never been so afraid, but the choice wasn’t hard: “This is our home, and he’s my husband.”
The couple watched neighbors load horses and donkeys and drive them away. They saw flaming tumbleweeds fly down a major highway, flames rip through an old stone house and a propane tank explode.
“Man, that made her jump,” Bill Velie said. “Just like a bomb went off.”
The firefighters encouraged them at least a handful of times to get out, and they agreed if the winds changed. More than anything, Bill Velie assured them that he had things under control.
He had thinned out parts of the national forest on the other side of his property line, and he cuts the grass regularly. They kept sprinklers running outside, and Bill Velie skimmed the edge of the woods a few times where it looked like the fire was crawling towards the neighbors’ houses. At night, flames flickered on the hill behind them like red stars in the sky.
“I saw some interesting things, but not like that for a while,” he said. “I miss? No.”
Ali Taranto and her husband, Tim, own a house in the neighborhood. They saw news about the fire on a neighborhood Facebook page and drove from Winslow, where she works as a nurse about an hour away, to check out the 5-acre (2-hectare) property.
Ali Taranto passed the neighborhood’s Girls Ranch property, once a home for troubled girls, and saw parts of the white picket fence melt to the ground.
She checked on her neighbor, Marianne Leftwich, who said she was fine. But Taranto didn’t hear from her for about an hour. Then Leftwich’s daughter called to say her mother was stuck at her house.
Taranto alerted rescuers, she said, but the dispatch said she would likely reach Leftwich before they could. Taranto found the woman semiconscious and short of breath, needing help evacuating, Taranto said.
“As a community in an emergency like this, all systems were totally overwhelmed,” Taranto said. “Thank God I got there and got it out in time.”
Taranto took Leftwich’s dogs to a kennel, then returned to rescue a goat and cow he saw wandering nearby.
Aside from burnt grass and bushes, the Taranto estate was unharmed.
Harriet Young’s house overlooks the neighborhood. She hired an arborist last year to remove dead trees and cut low branches as a fire prevention measure. She had pink gravel laid in the long driveway and around the front of her house.
Young believes she saved the house she and her late husband built in the 1990s. Fire burned around it, sparing the house and invasive olive trees that her daughter wished hadn’t survived.
“That was a miracle is all I have to say,” said Young’s daughter Stacey Aldstadt, who stayed with her mother for a few days after the fire.
When they were allowed to go home a week ago on Sunday, they had no heating or hot water. Young spent four days fighting propane companies to turn it back on. Finally, she convinced a former fire chief to come and fix it.
Everyone here knows Young, the staunch Democrat who regularly hosts Christmas parties. She made call after call as the fire progressed and planned to stay home, based on what she’d heard.
But neighbor Jeanne Welnick saw the cloud of smoke that seemed so far away grow and move towards the neighborhood and asked Young to leave.
“I owe Jeanne a huge ‘thank you,’” Young said.
The Welnicks initially purchased the home behind Young’s as a vacation property. Previous owners built it with fire in mind.
The 36-centimeter-thick exterior walls are made of concrete sandwiched between Styrofoam cells topped by a metal roof. Those walls are still standing.
The rest of the Victorian farmhouse style house painted orange with green trim is not.
Flames ripped, twisted strips of metal that creaked as the wind blew. Broken glass and nails landed on the sidewalk where the Welnicks wrote their names and the year they bought the house, 2004.
A cherub statue that the Welnicks placed outside as a memorial to a child they lost to miscarriage looked at the rubble. Two packages that were delivered to the walkway after the house burned contained material for lattice arches that the Welnicks planned to mount over their vegetable garden. Unburned pavers and sandbags were by the side of the garage, ready to be laid.
At noon, a bell that was near the front door to welcome them home rang, hidden among piles of rubble.
Jeanne Welnick surveyed the property, wondering which trees would survive. She mourned the loss of her paintings and a pumpkin flower necklace that was passed down from her husband’s family. She kept it in a glass case.
“I’d like to look for it, but it’s probably not even there,” said Welnick, an artist.
Their dogs, guitars and a few sculptures left with them, through what Welnick described as a roaring, dark, frightening train, like Armageddon.
In the aftermath, some neighbors struggled with the right words to say to those who had lost their homes. Some offered food, clothing, a place to stay and opened accounts to raise funds.
“They kept saying, ‘We love you so much; we love you so much,’” Welnick said. “And they do.”