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A year later, Yarnell continues putting a community back together

The Yarnell Hill fire burned 8,400 acres and destroyed more than 100 homes. When residents returned from evacuation, many of them found their homes reduced to rubble. (Shannon Smith/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON -- Not all the houses have been rebuilt. Not all the people have moved back home and not all the damage has been repaired.

But one year after the town of Yarnell was hit by what would become the deadliest wildfire in Arizona history, residents say the town is steadily pulling itself back together.

"Initially it was overwhelming. We expected everything to be normal when we returned, but everything was just gone," said Yarnell resident Shannon Smith.

The Yarnell Hill fire burned 8,400 acres and destroyed more than 100 homes, but became infamous June 30 when it trapped and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as they fought the blaze.

A year later, about 30 percent of the homes destroyed in the fire are in the process of being rebuilt. The volunteers who flooded the town have gone, but it was not until this week that the warehouses full of donated goods were finally given out.

After the town was initially turned down for federal aid residents pulled together and, with the help of public and private agencies got to work on restoring the town.

"They had to take responsibility for their own recovery," said Denny Foulk, Yavapai County emergency management coordinator. "No white knight was going to come. We told them they had to fix it themselves, but we would be there to help them."

In the process of working to fix it themselves, some in the town said they also found a new sense of community. It's a "tighter-knit community" than before.

"People know each other know that never knew each other before," said Frances Lechner, communications director for the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group.

The group has spearheaded much of the recovery. Formed in the immediate aftermath of the fire, while many residents were still evacuated, local leaders brought together "everyone who was passionate about recovering and excited about getting there" to form the group, said Scott Shephard, a founding member.

The recovery group has since done everything from coordinating cleanup and donation efforts, to rebuilding homes.

"They could write a book on how-to for other communities," said Rowle Simmons, Yavapai County supervisor, whose district includes Yarnell.

Other organizations, including the Yavapai Community Fund, Salvation Army and church groups provided significant financial aid and volunteer support. For eight months, the Yavapai County United Way managed two warehouses and an aircraft hangar with items donated for Yarnell residents.

"They were set up like a department store so people could come up from Yarnell and shop for whatever they needed," said Yvonne Bartlett, the local United Way's development manager.

Anything unclaimed by February was sold off, with proceeds going to the recovery fund. One warehouse was still holding items until residents could take them, but the last of those are being distributed this week.

Aid from people and groups around the country has helped the community, and continues to do so.

"People came from all over, not for notoriety, but literally just because they wanted to help families get back into their homes," Smith said. "Personally, it was just a humbling experience."

Smith was one of 10 uninsured homeowners in town who got a new house at no cost, through the financial and volunteer assistance Yarnell received.

"All these groups came from out of town and did a beautiful job on the homes," Simmons said. "It was very heartwarming to see the outpouring support that the community received."

Many involved in the recovery agree that building those homes was their biggest accomplishment. With nine of the homes finished and the 10th under construction, the recovery group has begun assisting the under-insured as it continues to work on other community members' needs.

With roughly a quarter of homes damaged or destroyed in the fire, the community still has a ways to go before it is fully recovered. Funding is still needed. The next projects are replacing parts of the fire-damaged water system and renovating a building so the town can have a part-time doctor on a more regular basis.

"Their next step for the long road of recovery is to take a look at how they can make it better than what it was," said Foulk, who believes the community needs to now think about ways to promote economic development.

Overall, said Lechner, the recovery has been "really strong and positive."

"But there's also so much layered in a disaster," she said. People go through all the stages of grief, which "doesn't go in linear line, it circles around and around," she said.

She expects that after this first anniversary, residents will shift to a new level of adjustment and acceptance.

"By and large the majority know that can't do anything to shape what happened," Lechner said. "Our encouragement has been to help people to find a way to come to grips with that."

Yarnell will never be the same, but some think it could be better because of its newfound sense of community.

Before, with an older population and a number of homebound residents, many people were isolated. Now, Lechner said, it is a "tighter-knit community."

For Smith, the optimism in the recovery brings a sense of healing.

"If you drive around you can see the beginning of homes and where homes are nearly finishing," Smith said. "I think it helps bring a measure of healing for people to see that people are staying and choosing to rebuild."

Foulk said the county was there for support all along, but the residents have "taken the bull by the horns and taken care of their businesses. All in all it was remarkable."

"I cannot tell you how immensely proud I am of the community of Yarnell," he said.

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