by Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Ariz. ( Associated Press) — In a small enclave in northern Arizona where homes are nestled in a ponderosa pine forest and tourists enjoy camping, hiking and cruising on ATVs, high winds are nothing new.
But when those winds recently intensified and sent what was a minor wildfire rushing toward their homes, residents of the intimate Girls Ranch neighborhood near Flagstaff faced a dilemma: what quickly they could do. Catch him and run away, or stay behind and try to escape from the huge, precarious flames.
Most of the property owners left. A couple stood their ground. Another ran to rescue animals at neighbors’ properties.
The fires that started on Easter Sunday filled empty piles, scorched tree stumps and scorched the landscape with an orange glow. Flames licked the corner of a woman’s porch and destroyed two other homes, setting the 30-square-mile (77-square-kilometer) mosaic of fires to a complete halt this weekend.
Elsewhere, firefighters continued to battle the largest active wildfire in the US on Sunday in northern New Mexico as strong winds pushed it closer to the small town of Las Vegas.
Officials said the fire damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures since it began on April 6 and was compounded by another wildfire a week earlier. Officials said the fire had grown to 162 square miles (419 square kilometers), but was still 30% contained.
The blazes are among many this spring, forcing panicked residents to make the snap decisions of life-or-death, fight-or-runaway as wildfire season heats up in the US West. Hot and dry seasons of years cause strong flames, causing them to burn over larger areas and for longer periods than in previous decades.
A few people living at Girls Ranch had only a few minutes to respond.
Polly Valy dropped out of a physical therapy appointment when she learned her home was in the evacuation zone. She went through embers and thick smoke to see her husband lying on the way. His voice trembled as he shouted over the smoke alarm running throughout the house.
“Bill, we have to go!” he shouted.
But Bill Valy — who cut fire lines with a dodger over the years in several states — was intent on staying. This is the same decision the couple made in 2010 when another wildfire in the area forced evacuations. Polly Valy said she’s never been more intimidated, but the choice wasn’t difficult: “This is our home, and he’s my husband.”
The couple saw neighbors load and unload horses and donkeys. He saw lit tumbleweed fly across a major highway, flames burst from an old stone house and a propane tank exploded.
“The boy that jumped him,” said Bill Valy. “Like a bomb exploded.”
The firefighters encouraged them at least several times to leave, and they agreed if the winds blew. More than anything, Bill Valley reassures him that he has things under control.
He had thinned parts of the national forest on the other side of his property line, and he mowed regularly. They kept on running sprinklers outside, and Bill Welly blew up the edge of the woods a few times where the fire looked like it was creeping into the neighbors’ homes. At night, the flames twinkled like red stars in the sky on the hill behind them.
“I’ve seen some exciting things, but that hasn’t been the case for a while,” he said. “Do I miss it? No.”
Ali Taranto and her husband, Tim, own a house in the neighborhood. She saw news about the fire on a neighborhood Facebook page and drove to Winslow, where she works as a nurse, about an hour away, to investigate the 5-acre (2 ha) property.
Ali Taranto crossed the neighborhood Girls Ranch property, which was once home to troubled girls, and saw parts of the white fence melt to the ground.
He checked on his neighbor, Marianne Leftwich, who said he was fine. But Taranto did not respond to him for about an hour. Then, Leftwich’s daughter calls to say that her mother is trapped in her house.
Taranto alerted emergency responders, she said, but the dispatch told her it might be before they could reach Leftwich. Taranto found the woman semi-conscious and was gasping for air, needing help to extricate her, Taranto said.
“As a community in an emergency like this, all systems were completely overwhelmed,” Taranto said. “Thank God I got there and got him out on time.”
Taranto took Leftwich’s dogs to a kennel, then returned to rescue a goat and a cow he had seen roaming nearby.
Apart from some burnt grass and brush, the property of Taranto was completely destroyed.
Harriet Young’s house overlooks the neighborhood. She hired an arborist last year to remove dead trees and cut down lower branches as a fire prevention measure. She had pink gravel on the long driveway and in front of her house.
Young believes it saved the house she and her late husband built in the 1990s. Forest fires burned around him, sparing the house and the invasive olive tree that his daughter wished for did not survive.
“It was a miracle, that’s all I have to say,” said Young’s daughter, Stacy Aldstedt, who stayed with her mother for a few days after the fire.
When they were allowed back home on Sunday a week ago, they had neither heat nor hot water. Young spent four days battling with propane companies to turn it back on. In the end, he persuaded a former fire chief to come and fix it.
Everyone here knows Young, a staunch Democrat who regularly hosts Christmas parties. She made call after call as the fire grew and based on what she heard, she planned to stay at home.
But neighbor Jean Welnick saw a plume of smoke that seemed so distant and headed towards his neighborhood, and urged Young to leave.
“I give a huge ‘thank-you-go’ to Jean,” Young said.
Welnix initially bought the home behind the Youngs as a vacation property. The previous owners built it with wildfire in mind.
The 14-inch-thick (36-centimeter) exterior walls are sandwiched of concrete by Styrofoam cells atop a metal roof. Those walls are still standing.
The rest of the Victorian ranch-style home with green trim doesn’t paint orange.
Flames erupted, twisted strips of metal that creaked as the wind blew. Pieces of glass and nails emerged on the driveway where Welnix wrote his name and the year he bought the house, 2004.
A cherub statue that Welnix had put out as a memorial to a child they lost by a miscarriage, looked down at the rubble. Two packages that were delivered to the walkway after the trellis arches were burned in the house Welnix planned to collect on his botanical garden. Unburned pavers and bags of sand sat on the side of the garage, ready to be laid out.
At noon, a bell rang to welcome him near the front door of the house, which was hidden among a pile of rubble.
Jean Welnick scanned the property, wondering which trees would survive. She mourned the loss of her pictures and a squash blossom necklace that was passed on through her husband’s family. He had kept it in a glass box.
One artist, Welnick, said, “I want to see her, but it’s probably not even there.”
His dogs, guitars and some sculptures made it with him, which Welnick described as a roaring train, dark, scary, like Armageddon.
Back then, some neighbors struggled with the right words to say to those who lost their homes. Some offered food, clothing, accommodations and setting up fundraising accounts.
“They kept saying, ‘We love you so much; we love you so much,'” Welnick said. “And they do.”