I live in the flat desert country south of where State Highway 89 winds up the mountain to the small town of Yarnell, Arizona, where lightning ignited a fire on June 28, 2013. I didn’t become aware of Yarnell’s fire until I stepped outside and saw a long ragged line of fire outlining the ridge. Smoke was thick and planes drop-ping red slurry were barely visible.
I turned on the news and heard with relief that the wind and fire had changed direction, but then immediately came the heartbreak that in that very wind change, nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots who were hand-cutting firebreaks were trapped in a hollow between two ridges. It was unthinkable but true. Some were found in their protective shelters, others didn’t get that far, but all were overcome, friends and co-workers in life, brothers to the end. The twentieth member, a lookout, was whisked out of harm’s way at the last minute.
With the fast-changing conditions, residents of Glen Ilah on the west side of Highway 89, and the rest of Yarnell, were evacuated as fire exploded around them, giving only moments to gather animals and leave with the barest of necessities. Peeples Valley, three miles north and also evacuated, was mostly untouched. The ground fire would not be fully contained until July 10.
By July 8, residents returned to survey the damage. Businesses along Highway 89 were not affected but 127 structures that were tucked into the boulders of Glen Ilah were destroyed. Fire is bizarre. It flitted from home to home with little left but cement, then up and over with no damage to structures across or down the street.
Too many lost everything; some didn’t have insurance; others were underinsured. “What do we do now?” was the question. Overwhelmed with the loss of home, hearth, heirlooms, photographs, and other treasures of the heart, they celebrated what they still had…life, and began making plans for the future.
RVs in tentative condition were donated and repaired for temporary living quarters. Churches and the Community Center were involved. Community Presbyterian Church temporarily housed the American Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, Salvation Army, United Way and state organizations. These groups, plus family, friends and total strangers, rushed to see that immediate and basic needs were met and counseling provided. The mission of the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group was to see that no one fell through the cracks.
Stories abounded. A husband went down on one knee with a wedding ring recovered from the ashes and his honey said yes to a second proposal of marriage. Not so lucky, a treasured piano was a tangle of rusted wire. An old Labrador retriever, who could not go on after such turmoil, was lovingly laid to rest. Truckloads of donated animal supplies kept Yarnell pets alive and well. Critters not necessarily so loved—two snakes—were found curled around a branch, charred, as was the tree.
This unincorporated little town, two hours north of Phoenix, is what I call “a blip in the highway.” That is not to be derogatory to small towns, as I delight in telling their stories and stopping to have lunch, visit with people, or go to church. In fact, although I live 15 miles away, I go to church in Yarnell and feel it is my town, too.
This small town exists, as all small towns exist, via committed volunteers. They deliver food to shut-ins, run the thrift shop, and maintain the library. You’ll find them at the American Legion, the Community Center, the Community Garden and the Farmer’s Market. Others volunteer with the Fire Department or their church. Tucked into the rest of the week are all the special activities for discussing books, painting, music, photography, dancing, beating drums or exercise.
Yarnell, with a population of roughly 650, was one of many western towns that grew out of the discovery of gold in the mid to late 1800s. Amateur prospectors still roam the mountains and desert looking for those elusive gold nuggets.Every town has its special places and the 76-year old Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountains is one of mine. All faiths are invited to climb the rock-lined trails that wiggle between the granite boulders and oak trees through the life-sized Stations of the Cross, scorched but still open to visitors.
Worth a VisitThe local economy, based on ranching, mining and services, has much to offer the casual visitor with an RV who is tempted to park along the wide street. Ads declare Yarnell is “Where the Desert Breeze Meets the Mountain Air.” If I can’t find a tool or part anywhere else, I know it is living in the narrow hallowed halls of Sentry Hardware, and the fellows who run the place are never at a loss to find it.
Ahh…the Cornerstone Bakery. I open the door into its fireplace warmth and fragrances, and my mouth drools until I retrieve my own hot coffee and fresh-baked confection to sit with friends. Neighbors greet neighbors, sharing the big table where everybody knows your name.Unique stores like The Painted Lizard, Kokopelli’s Antiques, Arizona Gypsy, and The Yarnell Emporium that also offers bunkhouse rentals live along the highway. I personally liked the original name of The Brand New Dead Things but since it sold, it is called Patty and Sons Antiques. Yarnell has a library, post office, and the new Shearer Paradise Coffee Shop that offers a haircut and guitar lessons while you sip. The T-Bird Cafe in Peeples Valley offers the best hand-tossed, wood-fired pizza.
On weekends a multitude of motorcyclists chow down at The Yarnell Family Diner or The Ranch House Restaurant. Bikers love zipping up the four curvaceous miles to Yarnell. If you’re headed down to the valley, the lookout point provides a panoramic view of Highway 89 and the desert beyond.
Until recently, I didn’t know the story behind the old buzzards I see lounging around town. No, not the bearded prospector types, but the big cutouts of turkey buzzards. The buzzards migrate from Mexico each year, and Yarnell celebrates the seasonal stop with a big “Buzzard’s Bash” in March.“Yarnell Daze” held in May of 2014 was a festival of Yarnell “rising from the ashes,” leading off with a parade. This was a typical gathering of friends and family with a whole lot of eating, drinking, and handholding; baby shushing, dancing, and swaying to lively music; a fitting memorial to the nineteen Hotshots who gave their lives trying to save this small town.
And the winds continue to blow across the enormous boulders and scrub trees. Houses and barns and studios and cars are still being replaced or rebuilt, while other land awaits new owners. Along with the inevitable problems and blame games that surface in a tragedy that affects so many people, there are kindnesses and a joyfulness that warms your heart. That’s just the way it is in a tiny blip in Highway 89 called Yarnell, Arizona. God Bless.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
Try the RV LIFE Pro Bundle FREE for 7 days