The One Way Small Towns Everywhere Are Alike

I took these pictures in Yarnell, Arizona in July 2013. It had been 30 days since a wildfire swept through this 700-person town.

The winding road to get here is Arizona State Route 89, and from Phoenix you must climb 1,300 feet up Yarnell Hill, in just a few miles. Those 1,300 feet change everything. The weather, the landscape, the pace, the people.

Yarnell is a town that has moved through time slowly. There’s not much to it, a few shops, one or two small restaurants, a store, a gas station, and you can never be sure what will be open and what will be closed for the day. Climbing Yarnell Hill (or descending it) is a popular Sunday-drive with bikers and classic car guys, especially in summer when the primal urge to leave the 100+ degree valley below and feel the breeze in Yarnell, or further on in Prescott, reaches a fever pitch.

The fire was devastating. The entire town was evacuated and when the residents returned, for many, it was literally to nothing, except charred remains.

Fire could be a friend, if you were sitting around the fire pit with friends on a chilly mountain night. But in the summer of 2013, fire became the enemy.
Yarnell is home to all types of artists, some speaking for the trees.

Nineteen firefighters were killed trying to save the town.

Nineteen men died in their tracks just outside the town. Investigations, accusations, lawsuits and bad feelings continue as everyone tries to explain the tragedy that killed more wildland firefighters than other since 1933.

But, I’m a serial optimist and I saw something else besides devastation and loss in Yarnell. I saw signs everywhere of a community pulling together, helping each other to get on. The Pollyanna side of me, which can be annoyingly active, saw something in the people of Yarnell. I’m from Boston, and because of our own tragedy (the marathon bombing), my city put into words this feeling that can be found all over the world: “Boston Strong”

Yarnell was strong. Signs were posted thanking neighbors, the fireman and God, or with information of where to go with insurance questions or to talk to disaster professionals, or where to get donated food and clothing. It seemed everyone was thankful for what was left, though to an outsider it would appear like nothing. Yet,there was inspiration in devastation.

I think we see it all the time, humanity pulling together. When disaster, a tragedy, or even war, has landed on the doorstep, the differences seem to fall away and everyone becomes essentially human — human, trying to survive.

I have seen this in the U.S. because of shootings. I have seen this through the eyes and heart of a friend in Syria, who despite risk, stands strong with her neighbors, fighting for their humanity by condemning others who use brutality in the name of religion. She is as proud of her town and their wartime survival, as Yarnell, or Newtown or thousands of other small towns around the world that handle hardship. This is where humanity is seen.

A lone burned tree among the boulders of the unique landscape in the Glen Ilah neighborhood.

This is the real reason for taking the winding roads, off the interstate or national highways. On Arizona 89, there’s Yarnell. Definitely worth the climb.

Scroll for pictures of the Shrine of St. Joseph in Yarnell, after the fire.

Originally published at on January 26, 2016.