Wildfire evacuees who lost their homes show patriotism on Independence Day

Friday, July 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SHOW LOW, Ariz. (AP) _ Karen Bentley lost her home to fire, but she still came out to celebrate Independence Day and cheer for firefighters battling the largest blaze in the state's history.

Bentley, whose home burned down two weeks after she moved in, was among those waving flags Thursday as they watched the annual Fourth of July parade on Show Low's main street.

``It's really special to be able to wave to the firefighters and thank them for helping us,'' said Bentley, of nearby Pinedale. ``Being here today is a great community feeling.''

Though more than 400 homes were lost in the communities of Pinedale, Linden and Heber-Overgaard, thousands more were saved, and firefighters were able to stop the more than 469,000-acre fire from making a run through Show Low.

McKenna Giles, 7, jumped up and down and flashed a poster reading, ``Thank You!'' as a line of fire trucks blared their sirens and flashed their lights.

``Every time they see a cop or a firefighter, they give them a thumbs up,'' said Kortni Giles about her daughter, McKenna, and her 5-year-old son, Chase. ``With 9-11, and the war and with everything, the timing of this holiday is just perfect.''

The Giles family didn't lose their Show Low home, but they did lose a lodge that her great grandfather built in Pinedale.

``Today, everybody is hanging in there and wanting to be there for each other,'' Giles said.

More than 30,000 people were evacuated when the fire, which is now more than two weeks old, began to rage out of control through ponderosa pine trees in northeastern Arizona. The fire was 90 percent contained Thursday night and was expected to be fully contained Sunday, fire information officer Diane Banegas said.

The fire has cost over $38 million, Banegas said.

Most residents went home Saturday. The last wave of evacuees returned Wednesday to Heber-Overgaard, one of the most heavily damaged areas.

Many cities in Arizona, including Show Low, decided not to celebrate this year's holiday with fireworks out of fear that the smallest spark could set off another wildfire in the state's extremely dry forests.

Still, Show Low celebrated the holiday with togetherness and patriotism.

``I am feeling very overwhelmed. All the emotion building over the last week, I almost cried'' watching the parade, said Gyna Pennell, whose father sang with his barber shop group on one float. ``This is an amazing community.''

Bentley's husband, Johnnie, said losing their home to the fire made him reflect on the Sept. 11 attacks and appreciate his community.

``That was a bigger catastrophe than losing your house. People lost their lives,'' he said. ``But that city came back. And we will too. Americans don't give up.''

In other wildfires:

_ About 200 homes were evacuated for about two hours in Glenwood Springs, Colo., on Thursday night because of the threat of flash floods from heavy storms over fire-charred hillsides. The fire has burned more than 12,000 acres and destroyed 29 homes. It was 90 percent contained Thursday.

_ Firefighters said a fire north of Durango, Colo., that has destroyed 56 homes was 70 percent contained Thursday. Southwest of Denver, rain washed debris from a nearly 138,000-acre wildfire onto a highway but caused no significant flooding.

_ A lightning-sparked fire in southwestern New Mexico grew to nearly 8,000 acres as firefighters tried to protect several homes. Residents were asked to leave.

_ In Stateline, Nev., firefighters managed to get a line around 60 percent of a holiday blaze at Lake Tahoe's tourist-jammed south shore that burned nearly 700 acres of forest and narrowly missed many upscale homes and condominiums.

_About 2,500 residents of Lead, S.D., began returning home. They were evacuated Sunday when flames threatened the city's edge. Firefighters said they were making progress battling the 10,622-acre fire in the Black Hills.