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Preparation saved Arizona couple's home from huge wildfire

By Joanna Dodder Nellans

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Ray and Bernie Singer were hosting friends for breakfast on the morning of June 29 when a couple of firefighters came to the door and asked if they could inspect their remote, wooded property on the southern fringes of Crown King.

The firefighters told the couple that they were going to assess whether firefighters could save the Singers' home from the Lane 2 wildfire that a lost camper apparently ignited the previous evening.

Lucky for the Singers, they recently had enlisted the help of the Crown King Fire Department to clear out some defensible space. And the couple had been good at raking out pine needles on the hillsides above their cabin.

"Well, Mr. Singer, we'll be back," Ray remembers one of the firefighters telling him. "It looks like we'll try to save it for you."

The Singers and their friends already had driven up a couple times to the top of Luke's Hoist Ridge to assess the wildfire that Sunday morning, but they didn't realize how imminent its approach was. The third time they tried to go up there, about 11 a.m. June 29, firefighters turned them back.

About the time they returned home, the fire department called to tell them to evacuate.

While they'd had close calls before, this was the first time that a wildfire had forced the entire community nestled in the southern Bradshaw Mountains to evacuate.

Ray and Bernie put their photos, genealogy CDs and about a dozen of Bernie's homemade quilts into plastic storage tubs.

Their friends, the Martins and Bitzas, helped them carry the tubs out to an 1800s-era mine tunnel near their home.

Then everyone left except Ray, who didn't realize that the wildfire was raging uphill toward his home.

At 11:45 a.m. he saw a fireball and started running with a jug of water to the safety of the mine tunnel.

"The noise was more scary than the fire itself," he recalled. It sounded like a train was coming.

As Ray ran for the tunnel, the Martins, Bitzas and Bernie had turned around to come and get Ray out of there. Ken Martin convinced him to leave. The fire was close behind them as they sped to safety.

They figured they'd never see their home of 22 years again.

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"On Monday (June 30) when we went to our first meeting (of evacuees), everybody said our house was gone," Bernie recalled.

But that night, their son saw their home in footage a TV crew shot from a helicopter.

When firefighters allowed them to return home July 9, they realized just how close they came to losing their place.

"It's amazing how it just burned all the way around the house," Ray said. The flames came within about 25 feet of the home itself, and burned right up to three sides of the shed.

They also had a new color scheme: red.

Their home, storage sheds, water tanks, bushes, trees and yard were covered with red retardant that heavy air tankers dropped. They weren't complaining, although they weren't sure how to get rid of it.

They were touched to find that firefighters had lowered their U.S. flag from its flagpole, neatly folded it into a triangle, and placed it between the screen and wood door to their home.

"I thought that was so neat," Bernie said.

They have been cleaning up and restocking spoiled food supplies since they returned.

Friends have been a big help. Fred and Pam Jensen, for example, brought them flowers, hot dinners and gas for their generator that they had to depend upon until their electricity was restored on July 11.

They are amazed how far they can see from Crown King vista points these days, and shocked at how steep the mountains look now that they are bare.

And they still are astounded that their home and all their surrounding structures are intact.

"Somebody was looking out for us," Bernie said.

And they were looking out for themselves, by clearing out brush and pine needles.

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