Fire's pain is magnified for residents of Yarnell, Ariz.

WICKENBURG, Ariz. — John Paulic watched Yarnell burn.

His wife and daughter pleaded with him to pack up the family and leave, as many around them had. "Let's wait," he told them. Looking out his window, he could see the blaze approaching the town, with flames reaching 20 feet high, stretched over what seemed like miles.

"It looked like Dante's Inferno," said Paulic, 53, who took a garden hose to protect his house on the east side of Yarnell. "We stayed here. We're still here.... But it's something I never want to live through again."

Those who ignored the calls by authorities to leave and chose to hunker down, like the Paulics, bore witness to the fire's wrath as it made its way through Yarnell: The homes devoured by flames. The bursts of fire jetting from exploding propane tanks. The capricious nature of the blaze as it repeatedly flared up and died down, driven by the winds.

Now, days later, these holdouts, making do without electricity and outside assistance, have one advantage over those who evacuated to the safety of Red Cross shelters: They know whose homes survived, and whose did not.

Andy Bacon, who lives in nearby Peeples Valley and owns the Yarnell Market grocery store, could do little but simmer in exile in Wickenburg as he waited for word on when residents could return home.

Yarnell residents were stunned by the deaths of 19 firefighters. But some say their own losses have been overlooked.

"There's other tragedies," said Bacon, 52. "A lot of people have to start picking up the pieces, because they have nothing left."

In a town meeting in Wickenburg High School's gymnasium Tuesday, the best estimates offered by authorities only fueled tensions. Homes lost to the fire, they said, could range from 50 to 200.

Clay Templin, incident commander for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, asked for patience while emergency responders repaired fallen power lines, doused hot spots, secured propane tanks and assessed the damage.

Templin said residents could probably expect to return to their homes by Saturday. "If things go better, and we think they will," Templin told the hundreds of disappointed evacuees in the bleachers, "we'll get you in there earlier than Saturday."

The Yarnell Hill fire hasn't been contained, authorities said, but its spread had been limited to 8,400 acres as of the most recently released assessment.

The winds — with potential for gusts as strong as 60 to 80 mph — were a source of concern, officials said. But water-dropping helicopters and air tankers have been able to operate and provide support to crews on the ground. More than 500 firefighters were still combating the fire.

"Even though this fire doesn't show a lot of active flame right now, it's very hot," Templin said at a news conference. He said it still had the potential to "grow very large, very quickly."

Federal investigators arrived Tuesday in Prescott to examine such specifics as the direction from which the flames overran the hotshot crew and whether firefighters were following standard protocol.

The surviving member of the crew was identified as Brendan McDonough, 21, who had been with the Granite Mountain hotshots for three seasons and was serving as lookout just before the team was overrun.

McDonough had stationed himself on a hill watching the crew and the fire, setting a "trigger point" at which he would move if the fire drew too close, said Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department.

When the fire reached that point, McDonough radioed to the hotshot captain that he planned to leave his position because of the conditions. He headed down the hill, back to a bulldozer line where he met up with a fire captain from a different hotshot team and turned around to reevaluate. The fire was moving so fast that it had tailed him.

Ward said officials were still reviewing radio traffic but it appeared that McDonough did what he was required to do. "He left his post based on the protocol," Ward said. "He was doing his job."

The conditions were such that the blaze was overpowering the firefighters attempting to defend Yarnell. "House by house, it was going up," recalled Brad Ruggles, a firefighter with the Yarnell Fire Department.

For those who lived in the quaint community of about 500 people — with its narrow streets winding between boulders and pine trees — Yarnell was a place worth saving, and one worth returning to.

It has attracted a fair share of Californians who grew tired of the stresses of the city and were drawn by the notion of a simpler, more rustic life.

"We moved to a peaceful place from one where we heard gunshots at night," said Kae Cameron, 58, who moved to Arizona from Stockton a year ago with her husband, George.

"The gangs in Stockton are out of control," said George, 59. "Everyone has heard of Stockton and its problems. Now, everyone has really heard of Yarnell."

Sitting near the Camerons at the Wickenburg shelter was Debbie Perez, 60, who arrived a year and a half ago. She left San Diego because of the seemingly ever-increasing cost of living. She lamented that she traded in her old life for one where a trip to the nearest major store required a 40-mile drive.

But her choice, she believes, was the right one.

"I love Yarnell and the people who live there," she said

Unlike many of her neighbors, Stacy Pizzirusso is no longer saddled with unanswered questions. She already knew the fate of her home.

"I know my house is gone," said Pizzirusso, 51, who was relieved that she was able to escape with her cherished grandmother's pearls. "So, in my case, there's no emergency about returning to Yarnell."

But there's something else she must confront: Should she rebuild? "The grass will grow, it will dry, and there will be lightning," she said, fearing a repeat of the last few days.

During that Wickenburg meeting, as residents and officials sorted out their differences, 11-year-old Ethan Mapstone was putting the finishing touches on a drawing rendered in gel pens. He called his piece "Everything Happens for a Reason." Ethan had recently decided that he would grow up to be a fireman.

He drew the mountain he lives on overtaken by flames. The mountain in his rendering had eyes. The eyes were shedding tears.

"Maybe this was supposed to happen," said the freckle-faced boy, "so we can build a bigger, better Yarnell."

Sahagun and Rojas reported from Prescott and Pearce from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Cindy Carcamo in Prescott contributed to this report.

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