Last weekend Nebra and I ventured up Yarnell Hill. Not even a full month had passed since the big wildlands fire up there had killed 19 firefighters on June 30.
Coming up on US 89 from Congress, there was no hint of fire damage until we reached the very top, at the little residential development called Glen Ilah. Lots of burn in there. But a mile farther north, in the small town of Yarnell, we passed down the main street, which is also the highway, and you would think nothing happened.
A restaurant was open for business as were a few other stores. Everything looked normal. Only a faint hint of smoke in the air.
It was not until we took a side street west, on Shrine Drive, that a darkened landscape began to appear. About a quarter-mile in, houses had burned. Yet some still stood untouched by flame.
A sign at The Shrine of Saint Joseph, a popular religious attraction, said losses included crosses at the top of the hill on the west, the gift shop and three other buildings. At the Retreat Center, three buildings, the caretaker’s house and some storage units were burned.
We walked through the devastated shrine. Some crosses escaped damage and many of the statues were intact, but in all, the sight was depressing. And even then, at its darkest moment, the Shrine proved an attraction. A steady flow of cars and pedestrians came down to the end of Shrine Drive to inspect. Many got out of their cars and moved solemnly through the disaster.
Down 89 to the north toward Peeples Valley and looking west, the blackened land appeared enormous. Charred boulders and burnt chaparral everywhere the eye could see. The death-scene of the firefighters lay out there somewhere, just out of view.
We turned around at one of Rex Maughan’s numerous ranches. He owns about 150,000 acres scattered in western Arizona. A sign on an attractive white metal fence notes: “Maughan Ranches.” It holds 19 memorials for each of the fallen firefighters.
It was our hope to climb atop Antelope Peak, high on the east edge of Yarnell. From there it was thought we could get a greater view of the total damage wreaked by the Yarnell Hill Fire. But we could not find an access or trail information. We asked a man getting into his car if he knew how to get to the summit. He did not seem to know what Antelope Peak was.
Like many up here, he no doubt had a lot more in his mind than dealing with a couple of would-be hikers.