PRESCOTT, Ariz. — They waited for a week. Then, on Monday, they waited a little longer, until authorities cleared them to go through.
Residents who wanted to see their town and the damage wrought by the Yarnell Hill fire could finally go home.
“I had butterflies,” said Dianne Stitt, 47, recounting the moments when she reentered Yarnell, about 30 miles southwest of Prescott. “But I’m glad to be home. I’m grateful to have a home to go back to.”
Stitt was among the fortunate. Her air conditioner and water heater would need to be replaced, but her home still stood.
The Yarnell Hill wildfire also took the lives of 19 firefighters who died defending the town.
Returning residents described a scene that was as devastating as it was perplexing: A checkerboard of destroyed houses and others that appeared to be spared. On one street, Gord Acri said, a home had burned down, while across the street, “flowers are still growing in the garden.”
The wildfire, which was started June 28 by a lightning strike and consumed 8,400 acres, is 90% contained. It continues to smolder in some limited areas, but authorities estimate full containment by Friday. Residents in parts of nearby Peeples Valley had been allowed to return days earlier.
Access to Yarnell was granted starting at 9 a.m. Monday, but only to residents who could offer proof of address with an ID card, utility bill or insurance papers. Officials said bottled water would be available, and advised those who intended to stay in their homes to boil their tap water for several days while lines were flushed.
Authorities said work continued on restoring power, water, communication, gas and other services.
The American Red Cross has set up in Yarnell to offer meals and blankets. Medical staff have replaced eyeglasses, medication or medical equipment lost in the blaze.
Shelters in nearby Prescott and Wickenberg will remain open and continue serving meals as long as needed, Red Cross officials said.
Counselors are available to work with residents. The return “could be very traumatizing,” said Michele Maki of the Red Cross. “Before this, it’s the not knowing and the anxiety. Now, it’s the reality of it.”
The region also continues to mourn. On Sunday, thousands lined a route that started in Phoenix and ended in Prescott, as the bodies of the 19 Granite Mountain hotshots were returned to the town where their crew was based. On Tuesday, locals will gather once again, this time for a memorial service. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- the former Arizona governor -- is among the officials who are expected to attend.
In Yarnell, Stitt was grateful her home was intact. She had bought it just a couple months before, and had finished painting the last room the day her family fled the fire.
Still, she grieved. She thought of one couple, in their 70s, who’d lost their house. She worried about whether they’d bounce back.
She knew people in the community would have to rely on each other. “They’re going to help one another,” she said, herself included. “They already have.”
Acri, 64, lives in nearby Congress, but owns a sprawling property in Yarnell, where he had been building a home. It was destroyed. Now, the construction contractor is on a volunteer cleanup crew, lending his equipment — including loaders and excavators.
He has seen the fire’s wrath up close, and it reminds him of images of Hiroshima after the atom bomb. “It literally wiped the surface clean” in some areas, he said.
But he chooses not to dwell on the destruction. Instead, he says, he focuses on moving forward.
“It’s just another bump in the road, and we have to get on with life and fix this mess,” Acri said. “I’m just going to keep on fighting here.”