Peples Valley area in Arizona

Fire crews continue a mop-up operation in the Peeples Valley area, about five miles from Yarnell, Ariz., where the 19 firefighters died. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / July 3, 2013)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. - Glen Ilah was supposed to be prepared for wildfires.

Peter Andersen and his wife, Judy, toiled with their neighbors in the small Arizona subdivision about 80 miles north of Phoenix to clear defensible space around their modest ranch homes, working with prison crews to clear scrub oak and manzanita that encroached from the surrounding desert.

"We did everything we could because we knew that we were in harm’s way - we had been in a drought and we knew the fuels were there,” he said.

Andersen, 61, a burly former firefighter with a mustache and a soft spot for stray cats, also knew because for five years he had served as chief of the fire district in their town, Yarnell.

The town has a population of about 650, with about 200 of them in Glen Ilah, clustered around a turnoff south of the downtown business strip along the main artery, Highway 89.

Andersen moved to town 12 years ago from Phoenix, settling among the retirees and snow birds, watching the economy take its toll as more and more were forced to give up their summer homes among the boulders and chaparral where Andersen would rescue feral cats.

By this summer, Glen Ilah was sparsely populated, the remaining neighbors close-knit.

On Saturday, a lighting strike ignited a fire in the hills nearby, but Andersen, who retired in 2011, was oblivious. He went to get groceries in the nearest city, Wickenburg. Somebody stopped him to ask: Have they got the fire out?

Small wildfires were not unusual in the area.

That evening, Andersen and his wife drove 35 miles north to Prescott, as usual, for Bible study. On the way back, about 10:30 p.m., they saw it. The hills were glowing.

“We could see flames on the ridge” near town, he said.

He contacted local firefighters and helped crews from the Bureau of Land Management and state land and forest service to access a horse ranch to the west of Glen Ilah, where they set up a 10,000-gallon dip tank near another 5,000-gallon water tank that the rancher let them use.

They scouted the area and decided a good safety zone for firefighters to retreat to as needed would be the corral area near the tanks, about a 150-yard circle.

The next morning, Andersen watched the Granite Mountain hotshots, a local wildland firefighting team, drive their buggy by his house at 8 a.m., and figured they would be based out by the corral area, roaming down into the craggy desert land beyond that was still thick with brush - treacherous terrain full of rocks and gullies.

Andersen had attended the fire academy with the hotshots’ superintendent, Eric Marsh, and trusted him to defend the area. Marsh, a respected wildland firefighter, had started the crew in 2002.

Plus, Andersen said, “Where they were was very safe.”

As his wife was preparing to leave for work as a caregiver in Prescott, where she planned to stay overnight, she made the retired fire chief promise that if the order went out to evacuate, he would leave.

“I was pretty determined not to go,” he said.

Still, he agreed.

Then Andersen went outside and sat on a hill where he used to watch storms as a firefighter - “lightning watch,” they called it. Only this time, instead of a storm, he was watching a single-engine air tanker, a DC-10, drop slurry not once but twice onto the fire.