Rebecca Wilks

Rebecca Wilks; Photographer, Teacher, Yarnellian, Do-Gooder

Monday, July 29, 2013


Regrowth, less than four weeks after the Yarnell Hill Fire

A month has passed since the tragedy in Yarnell, AZ.

My husband and I spend weekends there and in many ways, our hearts live full-time in the inseparable communities of Yarnell and Peeples Valley. 

The bad stuff continues to be all over the news.  I’d like to say a few words about the good stuff.

Our community has rallied.  We hear it over and over from State and County officials, as well as folks from The Red Cross and various other disaster relief agencies; they can’t believe how quickly we’ve come together. 

I see it in action.

Sunday night, as many of us watched the reports on the progress of the fire, guessing whether our homes had been engulfed, we began to strengthen our network.  An email list began and Facebook was mobilized in force for information sharing.  Over the next few days community members created a website to share information.  News from community meetings held in the shelters in Wickenburg and Prescott was quickly shared with folks who couldn’t be there.

By Friday, just five days after the town burned and three days before the evacuation order was lifted for Yarnell (Peeples Valley residents went home Thursday), we were meeting, largely by phone, to begin to create the committee structures we’d need to tackle the work ahead.

Now, we’ve had a dazzling outpouring of donations of goods and money, volunteer time and talents.

There are so many stories.  Here are a few. I’ll leave the names out but, of course, if you live there you know who I’m talking about.

One local religious leader has tirelessly spread love, comfort, and a remarkable knack for creative problem-solving.  He’s facilitated donations to pay rent for those who would otherwise have nowhere to go, participated in a plan to help local businesses hang on despite the strain of the disaster, and has helped us deal with anger and fear so that we can all better help each other.

More than one resident, having lost everything, has though first about how they can be of service to others.

 A man whose beautiful home and trees were essentially vaporized began planting Facebook posts about the fire to make us all laugh.  He talked about what a gift it was that he wouldn’t have to paint the house after all, pondered why his wife had neglected to pack some of his favorite sweaters, and offered his (thoroughly charred) car, “For sale: 1996 Miata. May need a tuneup.

Council of Buzzards
 This one requires a bit of explanation.  Yarnell is the summer home of several hundred Turkey Vultures. We think of them as our town mascots. You’ll forgive us for calling them Buzzards, I hope.  We also call the Javelinas “Pigs,” though we do know better.  But I digress.  So, some locals came up with the brilliant idea of creating a buzzard-decorating contest.  The birds in question were about four feet tall and made of plywood.  They made their debut during our annual town festival in May.  There were 30 or so and themes ranged from “Easy Rider” to “Hippy” to “Nun.”  A group of us decided to gather some of them together to sort of reclaim one of the burned-out houses.  I was honored to be there to photograph the spectacle. 

Phoenix Buzzard, Rising From the Ashes
I posted a request from the housing committee for travel trailers to house folks until their homes could be rebuilt on Facebook, and had an almost immediate response.  I haven’t had much contact with this kind man in 20 years, but he not only donated an immaculate trailer, but mobilized his network to fill it with donations for the lovely and grateful woman who now has a place to live.  Others whose only real connection to our town is me have mustered their own resources and contacts in a heart-stopping cascade of generosity.

Actual Turkey Vulture in Flight, Yarnell
You get the idea… We mean it when we proudly say that our community is becoming stronger.  You can’t keep a good buzzard down.

We are all so grateful for the help.

If you want to chip in, there's more to do.  Here's the website for the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group.

Remnants of the Slurry Drop in Yarnell

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

After the Yarnell Hill Fire; the First Eight Days.

Saturday June 29 we were with our dog, having breakfast on the patio of Cornerstone Bakery when the waitress came out of the kitchen with a press release about the fire, which started the afternoon before with a lightning strike down the hill.  So it began.

At that point the wildfire was so small we couldn't see smoke from town.

By Saturday night it looked like this.  We were nervous, but the wind was moving away from us and we most concerned for our friends in Peeples Valley, which was then in the path of the fire. Temperatures were at near-record levels, and we hadn't had rain in months.

Sunday morning the active part of the fire was localized and still moving toward Peeples Valley.  We walked the dog and connected with some friends, deciding to pack up some irreplaceable stuff and head back to our home in the desert.

The monster developed Sunday afternoon.  Most likely you know the story.  The wind multiplied and reversed direction, whipping up the fire and sending it right back into Yarnell.  Nineteen elite firefighters from Prescott were killed when their escape route was abruptly cut off.  At this writing, we are hearing many different estimates about property loss, but about 120 structures were lost.

Later, we heard that the evacuation proceeded so frantically, because of the wind change, that one couple in their 90s ran from their home with only the clothes on their backs, and another woman escaped with her hair on fire.

Sunday night we obsessively watched the TV news coverage and internet chatter and reached out to friends.  We felt certain from the violent, fast moving fire we saw that the whole town was wiped out. We began to mourn the loss of our little place and to worry about the safety of many during the very rapid evacuation.

Then we heard about the deaths of the trapped firefighters and felt that the monster had grown another head.

Monday and Tuesday the networking and information sharing kicked into high gear.  We found aerial photos from the national wire services and folks with fire service connections rode in from Peeples Valley and let people know as much as possible what was happening.  We had mixed Feelings when we learned that our home seemed to be OK.  We drove into Wickenburg with some friends who lost their place for a community meeting at the shelter there to learn the latest from fire officials and connect with some other folks.  We heard that parts of our town looked “Just like pavement.”

Thursday, Peeples Valley Residents went home.

Feeling powerless, we started working on a social media and fundraising campaign.  Friday was the first telephone meeting of community leaders to create a structure and division of labor.

On Saturday we drove into Peeples Valley via Prescott, twice the distance, because the road from the south through Yarnell was still closed.  We loaded the truck with some things that were needed from Home Depot and Olsen’s Grain in Prescott and spent some time with loved ones.

Sunday the procession of 19 hearses made a 4-hour trip from Phoenix to Prescott via Yarnell.  Wanting to pay my respects to the fallen, I set up with my camera gear in a location I had scouted the night before, on Highway 74 West of Lake Pleasant and waited a couple of hours for the caravan to pass my spot.  It was 105 degrees, but with shade, fluids, and a wet bandanna on my neck, it wasn’t too bad.  I had a large American Flag waving from my vehicle, and lots of folks passing by honked and waved. There were Facebook, text, and phone communications with people at various other spots on the route, but I needn’t have worried about missing them; the news helicopters announced their arrival. I’ve been asked why, since I had intelligence about the timing of the caravan, I didn’t sit in the car with the engine running and the air conditioning going.  I’ll forgive you if you think I’m nuts, but I had the sense that I was doing a sort of vigil to honor these firefighters and a little discomfort seemed appropriate.

My perch, waiting for the procession
 What happened over the next several days with the image was truly remarkable.  At this writing, over a million have seen it and it has been shared 12,000 times.  I’m honored to have had the opportunity to pay my respects to the heroes in this small way.  Images do, indeed, have the power to convey emotion.

Marco Talks to Fox News at the Checkpoint Monday Morning
 Finally, we got the word on Sunday that we could return to Yarnell Monday morning.  After a quick stop for purple ribbon in the Valley, we headed up the hill to clean out the fridge, help our friends, and reconnect.  Inspired by conservation photographer Daniel Beltra (who finds a kind of grim beauty in the horrible), I walked the neighborhood photographing the remains of friends’ houses and celebrating the little victories.  And crying. We’re all under a lot of strain, but I’m so very impressed with the sense of community and cooperation in town.  
If you’d like to contribute to our rebuilding effort, I suggest the Yavapai County Community Foundation’s Yarnell Disaster Relief Fund.  Please contact me if you have questions or would like to help in another way.

Prescott, Saturday July 6