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For residents of Yarnell, an anxious wait to return home

Those who fled a wall of flame in Yarnell nearly a week ago want to return to their homes, or what is left of them. But authorities have yet to give the OK.

July 05, 2013|By Rick Rojas, Louis Sahagun and John M. Glionna
  • A group from Yarnell prays after a community meeting at the Wickenburg High School gymnasium in Arizona. “I want to go in now and see whether it’s gone or not,” said one resident of her home.
A group from Yarnell prays after a community meeting at the Wickenburg High… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

WICKENBURG, Ariz. — Not long after he and his wife fled the fire that would burn through the town of Yarnell, Walt Adams got word that his home had survived. A couple of days passed, then he heard it had burned. Then, maybe not.

"It's like a roller-coaster and a nightmare," said the 62-year-old steel fitter, who has come to believe that a structure was destroyed on his property. He's just not sure if it's his home or a storage shed.

"Your emotions are up and down constantly," said his wife, Maria, 60. "You can't know until you see it."

Residents who fled a fast-moving wall of fire nearly a week ago are anxious to get back in. They have heard rumors. They have been talking to people who stayed behind. They have squinted to try to pick out their home on photos that have trickled out from behind the fire line.

"I want to go in now and see whether it's gone or not," Maria Adams said. "I want to see it so I can have some closure."

But authorities told them Friday that crews are still at work dousing hot spots, restoring utilities and securing propane tanks. They must continue to be patient, they said.

Firefighters have been able to establish a safe perimeter around 80% of the blaze, and residents of nearby Peeples Valley were allowed to return to their homes Thursday.

"We will get you in absolutely as soon as possible," Lt. Nate Auvenshine of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department told Yarnell residents during a town hall meeting at a high school gymnasium.

His words were met with a collective sigh.

"You know, we didn't want to leave when it was on fire, but we had to," said Karen Patterson, 34. "We're just itching to get back."

Patterson, who grew up in Yarnell and recently moved back, had prayed that the home she bought two months ago would still be standing. Finally, someone sent her a photograph from her neighborhood: Two houses near hers had been reduced to charred rubble. Hers still stood. "Somebody was listening," she said of her prayers. "I was not alone."

June Simmons was thankful to be alive.

Simmons, 71, owns three homes in the Glen Isla area of Yarnell, near the location where the Granite Mountain firefighters were killed Sunday. She lived in one house and rented the others. All three burned. She and her husband, Joel, were only able to gather their pets and a few belongings before they left, but Simmons said she still feels lucky.

"What we lost is nothing compared to the lives of the 19," she said. "We've got another chance; they don't."

A source of controversy has been a photograph posted temporarily to a social media page dedicated to the Prescott-based crew. The photograph is powerful — compelling in the eyes of some, an insult to others — showing the body bags containing the remains of the 19 firefighters lined up on the scorched earth, each draped in an American flag.

Two photographs were taken, one by Capt. Jeff Newnum of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department, who was part of the team that removed the bodies. Authorities were investigating who took the other photograph, which is the one that was shared online.

On Friday, Yavapai County Chief Deputy John Russell said that the department is attempting to find out who took the second photograph that was posted online. He said 19 copies of the other photo, taken by Newnum, were delivered to liaisons of the families, each in its own envelope. "To my knowledge, all of those envelopes have been picked up," Russell said. "We took a picture and made it a gift to the families purely out of respect. It was done with dignity. We have not released any photos to the public, ever."

Hailey Barnes, a lifelong friend of deceased Granite Mountain crew member Wade Parker, said she had mixed emotions about the photograph she saw.

"I don't know that we were ready to see that photo yet," said Barnes, 18. "Emotions are really strong. People are still in shock. Friends have passed away. So, seeing those bodies lying there on the ground is hard to take.

"It's just the harsh reality of knowing those are their bodies," she added. "But to me, having the flags over them is also an honor. These men are heroes."

In Wickenburg, knowing that these firefighters were killed so close to her home, Simmons has chosen to embrace this as a moment for renewal. "We have a new chance at life," she said.

Staying with friends, packed into local motels or spending time at the shelter, Yarnell residents have tried to share what attracted them to the small town: The rocky landscape and the oak trees. The weather, not too hot in the summer, nor too cold in the winter. The Adamses recalled the town's slogan: "Where the desert breeze meets the mountain air."

They know it will be tough once they see it again. "That's when it's really going to hit," Patterson said.

They're bracing themselves for hard work. Patterson, whose home is intact, said that includes her. "We're the chosen ones," she said of those whose homes survived. "We have to help."

No one is expecting to return to the town they left. That, they know, is partly gone.

"It'll be different," Maria Adams said, "but it'll still be home."

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