FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Hundreds of people who were forced out of a small Arizona community because of a deadly wildfire returned home Monday, finding a landscape drastically different than they remembered.
Vehicles lined up along the highway into Yarnell with the few belongings they had well before the evacuation order was lifted. Each resident had to present identification to prove residency, allowing them a couple of days to sift through the ashes, survey the damage and let reality sink in before the area opens to the public Wednesday.
“I know we’re going to be swamped not only with the press but onlookers,” Yarnell school board member Eric Lawton said. “That’s hard when you’re trying to deal with stuff and get back into a groove.”
Small shops that sell antiques, saddles and groceries are still intact, but the fire that broke out June 28 created a patchwork of destruction throughout homes and on the ground. More than 100 homes were destroyed, many reduced to ashes.
“It’s a bittersweet day today, driving through the town and seeing it burnt, and knowing a lot of people don’t have homes,” Yarnell resident Tammy Consier said.
But, she said: “This is an awesome community, there’s going to be beauty from the ashes.”
For residents heading into Yarnell from Wickenburg, a highway sign marking 19 miles into the town is another reminder of what was lost. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died June 30 after winds shifted and cut off their escape route. A memorial service for them is planned today, with Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano scheduled to attend.
About 700 residents were evacuated from the community northwest of Phoenix after violent wind gusts pushed the lightning-caused wildfire into Yarnell. Residents knew days ago whether their homes were spared, but didn’t know the extent of the damage.