FLAGSTAFF — Hundreds of people who were forced out of a small Arizona community because of a deadly wildfire returned home Monday, finding a landscape drastically different than they remembered.
Vehicles lined up along the highway into Yarnell with the few belongings they had well before the evacuation order was lifted. Each resident had to present identification to prove residency, allowing them a couple of to sift through the ashes, survey the damage and let reality sink in before the area opens to the public Wednesday.
"I know we're going to be swamped not only with the press but onlookers," Yarnell school board member Eric Lawton said. "That's hard when you're trying to deal with stuff and get back into a groove."
Small shops that sell antiques, saddles and groceries are still intact, but the fire that broke out June 28 created a patchwork of destruction throughout homes and on the ground. More than 100 homes were destroyed, many reduced to ashes. Large, charred boulders and blackened trees dotted the town, and red fire retardant was streaked across the hills.
"It's a bittersweet day today, driving through the town and seeing it burnt, and knowing a lot of people don't have homes," Yarnell resident Tammy Consier said.
But, she said: "This is an awesome community, there's going to be beauty from the ashes."
For residents heading into Yarnell from Wickenburg, a highway sign marking 19 miles into the town is another reminder of what was lost. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died June 30 after winds shifted and cut off their escape route. A memorial service for them is planned Tuesday with Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano scheduled to attend.
About 700 residents were evacuated from the community northwest of Phoenix after violent wind gusts pushed the lightning-caused wildfire initially thought to be manageable in size into Yarnell. Residents knew days ago whether their homes were spared, but didn't know the extent of the damage.
Crews already had cleared debris and animals that didn't survive from the streets by Monday and made sure that electricity and water were restored. Residents were told to boil water for at least three minutes before use as a precaution.
"To have those streets clear and a lot of the damaged material off public roads was huge," Yavapai County sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said. "It was a mess, electrical lines all over the place, just really unsafe."
D'Evelyn said residents are trying to salvage whatever they can from the ashes. Once they assessed their property, many of them headed to a recovery center that opened Monday to get help dealing with insurance companies, pick up cleaning supplies, or grab food and water. Caseworkers, nurses and mental health volunteers also were on hand.
Yavapai County Emergency Management spokesman Tim Tait said those services will be available for as long as the residents need them.