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Residents whose homes burned in the Tunnel Fire face a long road to rebuild

Tunnel Fire Home
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
The rock-made portion of a home northeast of Flagstaff is all that remains of a home burned in the Tunnel Fire.

Until last month, the most recent major wildfires to impact the Flagstaff area had miraculously spared homes. The 2010 Schultz Fire and the Museum Fire in 2019 burned a combined 17,000 acres almost exclusively on national forest land north of the city. That all changed with the wind-driven Tunnel Fire last month, which burned 30 homes in the Timberline area. On yet another recent gusty day, Coconino County Deputy Manager Lucinda Andreani showed KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius one home in a wooded area that was destroyed by the Tunnel Fire, and spoke about where residents, many of whom lost everything, go from here.

Lucinda Andreani: Well, this is a burned-out home. I would say it’s probably in the footprint of around 2,000 square feet and, as you can see it’s burnt to the ground. All that’s remaining are the rock walls, the rock fireplace—two rock fireplaces—and sheet metal from the roof. It’s really complete devastation. People had to make very quick decisions because we went, I think there was 12 minutes between the Set emergency notification—Set means be prepared to leave immediately—and then the Go, which means evacuate.

Ryan Heinsius: Do you get the sense that a lot of these residents are going to come back to their properties and start over and rebuild?

LA: We had about half to two-thirds were primary residences and some were rentals. And those people, some may have had insurance, some may not have had renter’s insurance. I know of one set of renters that lost everything and did not have insurance, so we’re working—our Health and Human Services Department is working very closely with those people. We know that we have one party that was uninsured, an elderly couple, and we’re working very closely with them. They’re in housing. They’re getting complete wraparound services to support them through this devastation. A lot of impact, and even if you were fully insured, there’s still going to be a financial impact to this devastation.

Tunnel Fire
A home in the Timberline area northeast of Flagstaff burned during the fast-moving Tunnel Fire as seen on April 28, 2022.
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU

RH: Yeah, this isn’t just impacting wealthy people, necessarily. This seems like it would be across the board.

LA: There are people from throughout this area who are going to need support from the community. We’re going to need volunteers. We’ve placed a number of people into housing as they figure out what they’re going to do, how they want to move forward.

RH: How long is this going to take to recover from? This is a massive job. Looking at this home here, I can’t imagine the work that needs to go into just clearing the site, let alone actually rebuilding a home here. How long is this going to take?

LA: Right now, a major challenge with rebuilding, as everyone’s aware, we’ve been off the chart with building permits the last two years, broken all records. Right now, to secure a contractor, to secure the subcontractors, your electricians, plumbers, it’s difficult because they’re busy. There’s a lot of work right now. I think in these cases, depending upon the size of the home and how quickly they can move forward it could easily take up to a year or longer, given the dynamics right now.

Tunnel Fire fence
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
A vinyl fence on private property in the Timberline area as seen on April 28, 2022 was almost completely melted during the Tunnel Fire.

RH: A far as I can remember, there’s never been a major wildfire in Flagstaff or just outside of Flagstaff that has involved the destruction of so many homes. Is this type of scenario something that the county and emergency have to accept as the new normal?

LA: Unfortunately, Ryan, this is the new normal. As part of the Infrastructure Act that was passed by Congress, there is a half-a-billion dollars now available to communities at high risk of wildfire of which many are within Coconino County, including parts of Flagstaff, including all communities, Parks, other areas. Those funds are directed to private properties and to help get defensible space as well as thinning trees. This is a prime example, look at all the trees that were adjacent to the property, and we’re looking for that 30-to-50 feet of defensible space. And this fire was a testament to defensible space. It wasn’t a given, but it was a testament. Many homes survived because of defensible space.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.