FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — In a small enclave in northern Arizona where homes nestle in a Ponderosa pine forest and tourists enjoy camping, hiking and ATVing, strong winds don’t they are nothing new.
But when those winds recently picked up and sent what was a small wildfire 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 to protect themselves. . the imposing 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, burned tree stumps and cast an orange glow across the parched landscape. Flames licked up the corner of a woman’s porch and destroyed two other homes, leaving a patchwork of charred earth as the 30-square-mile (77-square-kilometer) blaze finally neared full containment this weekend.
Elsewhere, firefighters in northern New Mexico continued to battle the largest active wildfire in the US on Sunday as strong winds pushed it closer to the small city of Las Vegas.
Officials said the fire has damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures since it started on April 6 and merged with another wildfire a week ago. Authorities said the fire had grown to 162 square miles (419 square kilometers), but was still 30% contained.
The fires are among many this spring that forced panicked residents to make instant life-or-death, fight-or-flight decisions as wildfire season intensifies across the western U.S. The weather years warmer and drier conditions have exacerbated fires, leading them to burn larger areas and for longer periods compared to previous decades.
Some who live in Girls Ranch only had minutes to react.
Polly Velie ran from a physical therapy appointment when she found out her house was in the evacuation zone. She sped through the embers and thick smoke to find her husband with the hose in the driveway. Her voice shrieked her as she screamed over the smoke alarms that were going off throughout the house.
“Bill, we have to go!” she yelled.
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 them to evacuate. Polly Velie said that she had never been more scared, but that the choice was not difficult: “This is our house and this is my husband.”
The couple saw neighbors load up horses and donkeys and take them away. They saw burning tumbleweeds fly across a main road, flames rip through an old stone house and burst a propane tank.
“Wow, that made her jump,” said Bill Velie. “Just like a bomb went off.”
Firefighters encouraged them at least a handful of times to leave, agreeing to do so if the winds changed. More than anything, Bill Velie assured them that he had things under control.
He had cleared parts of the national forest across his property line, and regularly mows his lawn. They kept the sprinklers running outside, and Bill Velie cleaned the edge of the woods several times where the fire seemed to be creeping into neighbors’ houses. At night, flames sparkled on the hill behind them like red stars in the sky.
“I’ve seen some exciting stuff, but not like this for a while,” he said. “I miss him? Do not.”
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 drove past the neighborhood’s namesake Girls Ranch property, once a home for troubled girls, and saw parts of the white picket fence melted into the ground.
She checked with her neighbor, Marianne Leftwich, who said she was fine. But Taranto did not hear from her for an hour. Then Leftwich’s daughter called to say that her mother was trapped in her house.
Taranto alerted emergency services, he said, but dispatch told him he would likely reach Leftwich before they did. Taranto found the woman semiconscious and out of breath, which she needed help evacuating, Taranto said.
“As a community in an emergency like this, all the systems were totally overwhelmed,” Taranto said. “Thank God I arrived and got it out on time.”
Taranto took Leftwich’s dogs to a kennel, then returned to rescue a goat and cow he saw wandering nearby.
Aside from some burned grass and brush, the Taranto property was unscathed.
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 out in her long driveway and around the front of her house.
Young believes she saved the house she and her late husband built in the 1990s. Wildfire burned around her, saving the house and the invasive olive trees her daughter wished hadn’t survived.
“This was a miracle, that’s all I have to say,” said Young’s daughter, Stacey Aldstadt, who stayed with her mother for a few days after the fire swept through.
When they were allowed to return home a week ago on Sunday, they had no heat or hot water. Young spent four days fighting propane companies to get it turned back on. Finally, he convinced a former fire chief to come in and fix it.
Everyone here knows Young, the staunch Democrat who regularly hosts Christmas parties. He made call after call as the fire progressed and planned to stay home, based on what he had heard.
But neighbor Jeanne Welnick saw the plume of smoke that seemed so distant grow and move toward her neighborhood, and urged Young to leave.
“I owe Jeanne a big ‘thank you,’” Young said.
The Welnicks initially purchased the house behind Young’s as a vacation property. The previous owners built it with wildfires in mind.
The 14-inch-thick (36-centimeter) exterior walls are concrete interspersed with Styrofoam cells topped by a metal roof. Those walls still stand.
The rest of the Victorian ranch house painted orange with green trim is not.
Flames tore through, twisting metal strips that cracked as the wind tore through them. Shards of glass and nails shot out onto the driveway 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 peered into the rubble. Two packages that were delivered to the curb after the house burned contained material for the trellis arches the Welnicks planned to assemble over their garden. Unburned pavers and sandbags sat to one side of the garage, ready to be laid.
At noon, a bell rang near the front door to welcome them home, hidden among mounds of rubble.
Jeanne Welnick scanned the property, wondering which trees would survive. She mourned the loss of her paintings and a gourd flower necklace that was passed down from generation to generation through her husband’s family. She kept it in a glass case.
“I’d like to look for that, but it’s probably not even there,” said Welnick, an artist.
Their dogs, guitars, and some sculptures made it out with them, via what Welnick described as a dark, terrifying, roaring train, like Armageddon.
Later, some neighbors struggled with the right words to say to those who 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.”