Community impacted by Tunnel Fire critical of wildfire response: 'What took so long?'

Some residents in Coconino County are upset over the response to the wildfire burning just miles from Flagstaff, dubbed the Tunnel Fire.

In a community meeting on Saturday, April 23, nearly a week after the fire began, residents took their concerns to the microphone, asking county and fire officials why there wasn't a quicker, larger and more elaborate response on April 17.

More than 21,0000 acres have been burned, so far, and the fire is 3% contained.

Matt McGrath, Flagstaff District Ranger in the Coconino National Forest, shared a story of a resident who asked a question at a previous meeting that he admits to "not answering well." Fire officials got an email from another resident who drove away from their burning home asking for further explanation on the answer that was given.

McGrath says something he didn't expect came out of the interaction. Without sharing the details of the email, he said, "Sometimes you never know what you're going to get when you open up an email. It was a lot different than I was expecting. This person talked about understanding the tough job that we have. They said we usually do a very good job. They said, ‘This time, I think you could have done a better job,' which is also a very reasonable thing for them to say."

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He continued, "Then at the end, they said, ‘I still support you.’ I just sort of stood there and looked at it for a while because it was pretty remarkable to me. It showed incredible strength and grace that probably only I can aspire to. It was really meaningful to me and to all of my firefighters. Many, most of whom, were born and raised in Flagstaff."

'They’re just piles of cinders now'

A resident who spoke at the meeting says she saw Schultz Pass Road on fire.

"Why weren’t they on that fire? The wind was blowing very, very hard. They should have been out there at all times trying to get that fire under control," she said.

She says she’s fortunate, however, because her house is still standing. "Many, many of our neighbors had their homes burned to the ground. They’re just piles of cinders now," she said.

Residents wanted to know what the initial response was like on April 17. The forest service says it responded with four engines 15 minutes after the initial call.

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"The fire was called contained. There was no visible flame or smoke, so they went back to the station," McGrath explained. Crews reportedly checked in the next day, saying it was under control.

Less than 24 hours later, it was a different story. The winds were howling, and they could not control the fast-growing fire.

"I don't know why anyone was surprised at the wind," a resident said at the meeting. "It blows every day, of the same month, all the time."

One by one at the podium, officials were asked why this fire turned into something that they feel could have been contained.

"We don’t deserve this. We need some better service here," a resident said.

‘I was there standing alone’

Another resident who says he moved to Arizona six years ago from California says he tried ringing the doorbell of the fire station nearest him the day the fire began. He says he and others who also went to the station weren't answered at the door.

"I stopped at the fire station … I rang the doorbell several times. I got no answer. Another gentleman pulled in, him and another gentleman came in with a  truck and they also were trying to ring the doorbell. We got no answer," the resident said.

He said they called 911 and reported the fire. He then went home, thinking everything was OK, after being told everything was under control.

Three days later, he says he saw smoke in the same area, and he says he was told he was seeing smoke from a "controlled burn."

"I thought to myself, wait a minute lady, that is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. No one does a controlled burn when there's 55 mph winds coming our way. That is ridiculous" the resident said.

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He said he wasn't sure if that was completely accurate information he got, but either way, the fire moved to his backyard. He said he was battling the fire alone, hosing his property down, and was knocked to the ground.

"I saw sheriff cars. They said ‘we're here to help,' and I said ‘well buddy, if you’re gonna help me, you're gonna need to grab a hose because I'm not leaving. I got dogs, I got my cat and everything and I'm not moving. He just kind of snickered at me and he drove off … I saw not one fire crew, of any sort, coming to help me out," the resident said. "I was there standing alone."

McGrath, Flagstaff District Ranger, responded, saying they didn't have any prescribed fires planned for the week, and that April 15 was the last time they conducted one.

"It absolutely was not a prescribed fire," McGrath said. The ranger said he wasn't able to speak to anyone from the sheriff's office reportedly coming to help, then leaving.

The cause of the fire is unknown and currently under investigation.

Local businessman Robert Miller who owns three homes that were destroyed by the Tunnel Fire says a lawsuit is a possibility.

He wants people fired up and and to push for change in the Forest Service.

"All I want is accountability. We need change in Flagstaff. Flagstaff's forest service is out of control," Miller said.

Miller's home on Lenox Road was reduced to ashes. A rental property and his father's home are on the same property. Those are also gone, but he’s insured for the millions in losses.

He asks what about those who aren’t insured.

Miller and others blame the forest service who they say could have put the fire out when it was small on Easter Sunday, but didn’t.

"Folks like us who are camping in the forest, we're not allowed to leave fires unattended. We're threatened with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Millions of dollars in fines if we leave our fire unattended. The forest service left that fire unattended Sunday afternoon," Miller said.

Watch the April 23 community meeting:

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