FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In a small northern Arizona enclave where homes are nestled in a ponderosa pine forest and tourists love to camp, hike and ride ATVs, high winds are nothing new.
But when those winds recently intensified and sent what was a small wildfire towards their homes, residents of the close-knit neighborhood of Girls Ranch near Flagstaff were faced with a dilemma: quickly grab what they could and flee, or stay behind and try to shield yourself from the towering, erratic flames.
Most owners are gone. A couple held on. Another ran to save animals on neighbors’ properties.
Elsewhere, firefighters in northern New Mexico continued to battle the largest active wildfire in the United States on Sunday as high winds brought it closer to the small town of Las Vegas.
Officials said the blaze 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 spread to 162 square miles (419 square kilometers), but was still 30% contained.
The blazes are among many this spring that have forced panicked residents to make quick life or death, fight or flight decisions as wildfire season heats up across the western United States. . Years of hotter, drier weather have exacerbated the fires, causing them to burn larger areas frequently and for longer periods of time than in previous decades.
Some residents of Girls Ranch had only a few minutes to react.
Polly Velie rushed out of a physiotherapy appointment when she learned her house was in the evacuation zone. She walked through embers and thick smoke to find her husband spraying the driveway. Her voice screamed as she screamed above the smoke detectors going off all over the house.
“Bill, we have to go! she cried.
But Bill Velie – who has cut the lines of fire 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 had never been so scared, but the choice was not difficult: “This is our house, and this is my husband. »
The couple watched as neighbors loaded horses and donkeys and hauled them away. They saw burning tumbleweeds flying down a main road, flames tearing through an old stone house and a propane tank bursting.
“Boy, that startled him,” Bill Velie said. “Like a bomb exploded. »
Firefighters encouraged them at least a handful of times to leave, and they agreed if the winds turned. More than anything, Bill Velie reassured them that he had things under control.
He had thinned out parts of the state forest across his property line, and he regularly mows the grass. They kept the sprinklers outside and Bill Velie swept the edge of the forest a few times where it looked like the fire was creeping towards neighbors’ homes. At night, the flames flickered on the hill behind them like red stars in the sky.
“I’ve seen some exciting things, but not like this for a while,” he said. “Do I miss it? No. »
Ali Taranto and her husband, Tim, own a house in the neighborhood. They saw news of the fire on a neighborhood Facebook page and set off from Winslow, where she works as a nurse about an hour’s drive away, to check out the 5-acre (2-hectare) property.
Ali Taranto walked past the namesake property in the Girls Ranch neighborhood, 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 in her house.
Taranto alerted rescuers, she said, but dispatch told her she would likely get to Leftwich before they could. Taranto found the woman semi-conscious and out of breath, needing help to evacuate, Taranto said.
“As a community in an emergency like this, all systems were totally overwhelmed,” Taranto said. “Thank God I got there and got her out in time. »
Taranto took Leftwich’s dogs to a kennel, then returned to rescue a goat and a cow she saw roaming nearby.
Other than some burnt grass and brush, Taranto’s 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 laid pink gravel on the long driveway and around the front of her house.
Young thinks it saved the house she and her late husband built in the 1990s. The wildfire burned all around, sparing the house and overgrown olive trees that her daughter wishes they hadn’t had. survived.
“It 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.
When they were allowed to go home a week ago on Sunday, they had no heating or hot water. Young spent four days fighting with propane companies to get it back on. Eventually, she persuaded a former fire chief to come and fix it.
Everyone here knows Young, the fervent Democrat who regularly throws Christmas parties. She called after call as the fire progressed and planned to stay home, based on what she heard.
But neighbor Jeanne Welnick saw the plume of smoke that seemed so distant grow and head towards their neighborhood, and urged Young to leave.
“I owe Jeanne a huge ‘thank you,'” Young said.
The Welnicks first bought the house behind Young’s as a vacation property. The previous owners built it with wildfires in mind.
The 14-inch-thick (36 centimeters) exterior walls are concrete sandwiched by polystyrene cells topped with a metal roof. These walls are still standing.
The rest of the Victorian ranch house painted orange with green trim is not.
Flames ripped, twisting strips of metal that creaked as the wind blew. Shards of glass and nails flew across the driveway where the Welnicks wrote their names and the year they bought the house, 2004.
A cherub statue the Welnicks placed outside in remembrance of a child they lost to miscarriage peers over the rubble. Two packages that were delivered to the catwalk after the house burned contained materials for the lattice arches the Welnicks planned to assemble above their vegetable garden. Unburned cobblestones and sandbags lay on the side of the garage, ready to be laid.
At noon, a bell that stood by the front door to welcome them home rang, hidden among piles of debris.
Jeanne Welnick scanned the property, wondering which trees would survive. She mourned the loss of her paintings and a squash flower necklace that was passed down to her husband’s family. She kept it in a display case.
“I’d love to look that up, but it’s probably not even there,” said Welnick, an artist.
Their dogs, guitars, and a few sculptures rode with them, through what Welnick described as a roaring, dark, creepy, Armageddon-like train.
In the aftermath, some neighbors struggled to find the right words to say to those who lost their homes. Some donated food, clothing, housing and opened fundraising accounts.
“They kept saying, ‘We love you so much; we love you so much,” Welnick said. “And they do. »