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The Stranger Thing Happens in the Path of Huge Wildfire

Blaze: Evacuees find refuge and kindness from many folks they have never met.


SNOWFLAKE, Ariz. -- Just when Sherry Jones, a fire refugee from Show Low, was beginning to believe she could no longer hold herself together for her young daughter, her car broke down at a stop sign and she had no way to call for help.

That's when Kurt Zoellner happened by, and she frantically signaled him. Zoellner offered to take her to his home so she could use his phone.

"She was shaking and crying when I saw her at our front door," said Jennifer Zoellner, Kurt's wife.

So the Zoellners did what hundreds of other families living on the periphery of the Rodeo-Chediski forest fire have done: open their homes to strangers who have been forced to evacuate.

Jennifer Zoellner said she and Kurt had no idea what they were getting into Sunday when he brought Jones and 7-year-old Anna Lee into their home here, about 20 miles north of Show Low.

But when disaster strikes, she said, "people become just people. Whatever their financial problems are or whatever other problems they have, they are all people in need."

Things have worked out nicely. Jennifer and Sherry get along fine, and Anna Lee and 7-year-old Annie, one of the Zoellners' four children, have become good friends.

"The girls hugged each other at bedtime the other night," Jennifer Zoellner said.

Stephen Reidhead said families in his Snowflake Mormon church have housed at least 300 evacuees, some of the 30,000 people forced to flee the fire.

One church member, Naomi Perkins, 53, met an elderly couple, Louis and Joan Embertson, at a Red Cross lunch center here. She had heard they had been spending nights in their Jeep, so she invited them into her home.

"They were very grateful," Perkins said.

Louis Embertson said they spent one night in the Jeep when the fire forced them to abandon a motel room in Show Low. They parked in a Snowflake motel parking lot and "just tilted the seats back," he said.

Embertson, who owns a home in Burton, near the fire's northern edge, said Perkins and her husband, Roy, "are super nice people."

Sherry Jones' situation wasn't quite as desperate. Some elderly friends had kept her off the street for the first few days after the evacuation.

But they had also invited another couple in, and it had become clear that Jones' welcome was wearing thin. With her daughter the only child among four senior citizens, she sensed things were getting tense.

"There was a lot of undercurrent there," she said.

Jones began to wonder what she and Anna Lee would do.

"We may have been living in our car if Jenny and Kurt had not opened up their home to us," she said. "It's not easy to take on total strangers. They are so sweet, compassionate and giving in their whole behavior."

She doesn't know what she'll do if the fire takes her home. She says she is haunted by the knowledge that she put her insurance payment in the mail the day a cancellation notice arrived, fearing her coverage might lapse.

As a single mother, living on disability, it was a struggle to make the house payments. She was able to buy the home after breaking up with Anna Lee's father by selling their home in Mesa.

But there's no money now if the fire takes her home.

"It was very, very modest, but it was our home," she said.

As Jones talked, she rose from the couch and walked to the kitchen and picked up the Zoellners' phone, as she has done every day. She tucked her head down as she dialed her own telephone number and listened.

"Please record your message at the tone," the answering machine said, telling her the house still stands. She lifted her head, and smiled.

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