Recovery Efforts Continue In Yarnell

August 23, 2013

The Yarnell Hill Fire claimed the lives of 19 firefighters June 30, but it also devastated the little town of Yarnell. It will cost an estimated $6 million to rebuild homes and businesses. Still, that wasn’t enough to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Assistance funds. So residents have taken disaster relief into their own hands.

yarnell The Yarmell Hill Fire's destruction is clear throughout Yarnell. (Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

Patty Cooper arrives at her property – and what used to be her house. Now, her 3.5  acres are filled with ash and piles of debris being moved and stored by the state.

"So, the house started here. There was a big porch. Went all the way over there. Then there was a carport, then there was guest house built on that slab,” Cooper said.  

The concrete slab looks fine, but the Yarnell Hill Fire left little else. Cooper just bought this place in March. By the end of June it was gone.

At least 11 of the 121 homes destroyed were uninsured. Cooper is an artist and musician – and one of the uninsured. She lost everything – including all her paint, her canvases, her keyboard. Not to mention all her grown children’s baby photos.

“ It’s like, wow, in one fell swoop, how ’bout just wipe away most of your possessions. Not only that, like, all the ways I made a living, let’s just wipe it clean,” she said.

Cooper is trying to let go and embrace the change. She said meditation is helping.

So are her neighbors. The brand new Yarnell Hill Recovery Group has stepped in to help people like Cooper rebuild their lives – and their homes. The group has committed to building new houses for all uninsured victims. Cooper says she doesn’t know how she got so lucky.

“I just know that my job right now is to go ‘thank you,’ you know, to just, with arms wide open, go ‘thank you so much,’” Cooper said.

You hear those words constantly at the local Presbyterian Church. That is the makeshift headquarters for the recovery group. The organization was started by residents before many were even allowed back in their homes. It now has about 60 volunteers – that is about a tenth of the tiny town.

“ We’re not a strange face or a government face,” said Kathleen Stowe, vice president of the group. “We are your neighbors, and we’re as much as concerned about our town as they are. I think they trust that.”

And they know this is the place to get the kind assistance the government cannot provide. The state has played an administrative role, but it is private organizations like the United Way and Red Cross that have helped Yarnell’s recovery organization with many daily needs.

Don Blattert chats with Stowe as he picks up vouchers for groceries and meals at local restaurants.

“ Yeah, I missed it last time ’cause I’m always zipping back and forth to the Valley working. I was going to miss this one, too,” Blatter said.
Stowe jumped in. “Would you give him two packs? You missed it last time? You’ve got two boys.”

Blattert takes the extra vouchers – and thanks Stowe. These vouchers are just one part of the group’s patchwork of aid. Another is the massive influx of donated goods — clothing, food, home goods.

There is no way to estimate how much stuff has been donated to Yarnell, but there is still more than enough to fill about 25,000 square feet of storage space in Prescott, more in Congress and a high school gym in Wickenburg.

“It was amazing. In the first three or four or five weeks, we were just inundated, and it just kept coming in and coming in. And we have a lot more still coming in,” said volunteer Kaye Huckelberry.

Huckelberry said the group has met many of the families’ immediate needs, but she knows there will be other challenges.

“A lot of their temporary housing now, they don’t have room to put what they need, and we’re thinking ahead to Christmas and trying to put things ahead for Christmas,” Huckelberry said.

While there are enough donations to go around, what is needed most is hard cash. The Yarnell Hill Recovery Group will hold a giant sale of excess items at 7 a.m. Aug. 24 at the Wickenberg Community Center.

Right now, the organization has about $1.2 million to rebuild. That leaves nearly $5 million still to be raised.

The massive loss of homes means huge cuts in tax revenue for the fire department and elementary school.

But the local water company may have taken the hardest hit. Board vice president Stan Kephart estimates nearly two-thirds of company’s lines were damaged. That is $1.5 million the company does not have. Kephart said insurance will pay a third of that – hopefully.

“So, we know that we have to raise another million dollars somehow. And you can’t do that with pie sales and car washes,” Kephart said.

They might not be able to do that with government money either. The Yarnell Water Improvement has received a few gifts so far, but that is just a start. Grants might fill the void, but Kephart cannot be sure. 

“I just don’t know, and it’s that not knowing that’s very frightening,” Kephart said. “As a resident here, as somebody who cares about this community. It’s frightening. It’s as scary as the fire.”