June 14, 2011 / 1:11 PM / 8 years ago

Arizonans tell of harrowing brush with wildfire

SPRINGERVILLE (Reuters) - Lisa Carpenter defied evacuation orders when a massive wildfire in eastern Arizona crept closer to the RV park she manages, but at one point she had second thoughts about her decision.

A heavy helicopter returns to Luna Lake after dropping water on a flair up north of the lake, on the eastern edge of the Wallow Wildfire outside Alpine, Arizona near the state border west of the town of Luna, New Mexico, June 13, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

“It was so bad you couldn’t see a football field ahead of you,” Carpenter, 47, told Reuters on Monday.

“Embers were flying and ash was everywhere. There was about an hour there where I really questioned whether it was the right decision to stay,” she said.

That was last Wednesday, but Carpenter said she felt fortunate to have about 20 firefighters staying at the Casa Malpais Recreational Vehicle park she manages with her husband in Springerville, Arizona.

Carpenter ended up housing, feeding and offering showers to the firefighters, and that seems to have been a boon for both the preservation of the RV park and her guests.

“We had a firefighter who said, ‘this is the first time I’ve gained weight’” battling a blaze, Carpenter said.

Carpenter is one of thousands of Arizona residents affected by the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona who have begun to return to their normal lives, now that about 4,300 firefighters have largely halted the advance of the blaze.

The fire has destroyed 31 homes and burned more than 452,000 acres since it broke out on May 29.

A day after evacuation orders were lifted for neighboring towns Springerville and Eagar, residents on Monday unpacked cars, cleaned up front yards and talked with neighbors.

Those who returned home could still see plumes of dark smoke billowing from the surrounding mountains, as water-dropping helicopters flew overhead.

Michelle Chavez, 41, and her mother evacuated from Eagar to the town of St. Johns 30 miles away, taking with them bags of clothes, pets and their outdoor flowerpots.

Chavez returned on Sunday, eager to get back to work at the post office. She said she will not be able to reopen her second business running a boutique until Saturday.

Her mother, Lisa Lee, 63, said the wildfire has hurt the pocketbooks of evacuees.

“You can’t go to work because of the evacuation but the bills don’t stop,” she said.

Last week, the Wallow Fire had forced as many as 11,000 residents to flee their homes. But early this week that was reduced to about 1,900 who were still waiting to return to evacuated homes in a handful of Arizona towns in the White Mountains area, including Alpine, Greer and Nutrioso.

Retirees Val and Jeanette Hale of Nutrioso were among those who still have not been able to return home. They are staying in St. Johns.

“We just loaded up everything we could get and ran like crazy,” said Val Hale, 78. “But we left in such a hurry, I took all the wrong clothes, I don’t have anything I need. It’s been terrible.”

Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Jerry Norton

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