Tucsonans with ties to Greer rattled

2011-06-12T00:00:00Z 2011-08-24T11:50:09Z Tucsonans with ties to Greer rattledBy Tony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 12, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Sobs punctuated Tucsonan Gina Murphy-Darling's recollections of her family's second home, which burned to the ground last week.

Losing the cabin in Greer left her "numb," "devastated" and "hurt," she said.

Yet even with the pain still fresh, words of hope sometimes broke through her tears. The host of a weekly talk radio show in Tucson on sustainable living, Murphy-Darling said she wants to rebuild a "green" home, LEED certification and all.

How to bring the town back seemed on the minds of many Greer residents, part- and full-time, as they contemplated the future of the tiny community, elevation 8,500 feet, that Gilbert resident Michael Dentzer called "my Shangrila" Friday on a Facebook site dubbed "I love Greer, Arizona." His connections to the town date to the 1930s, when his great grandparents bought a house there, although his family owns no property there today.

Murphy-Darling's cabin was one of 22 homes out of maybe 500, along with 24 storage sheds, barns, utility buildings and other "outbuildings" that were destroyed within a few hours last Wednesday afternoon. They burned when the Wallow Fire jumped over the East Fork of the Little Colorado River and into Greer's east side. Five homes were damaged but not destroyed.

Many residents, who had evacuated Greer, didn't get word that their cabins were destroyed until Friday. Some were staying with friends. Others slept on cots and mattresses inside a gymnasium-turned-Red Cross evacuation center at a high school in Lakeside, about 30 miles from Greer. Murphy-Darling was interviewed from her Tucson home.

"We were with family tonight. … It is like an actual grieving process - not the stuff (at the cabin), but the place of magic," Murphy-Darling said late Friday night. "We will all be OK, but it really hurts."

For now, she and others connected to Greer must deal with some practical concerns. When can those whose homes survived return, assuming the fire doesn't kick up again this weekend, when the winds that drove the blaze into disaster stage were scheduled to resume? How will the sight of blackened trees and hillsides surrounding parts of this community affect the tourist industry that is the entire region's lifeblood? How long will it take for the grassland, pine trees and homes worth up to $1.2 million to come back?

in love at first sight

Soon after Gina Murphy and James Darling of Tucson married more than 30 years ago, they took a day trip to Greer during a visit to Hawley Lake on the neighboring White Mountain Apache Reservation.

"It had us from hello," said Murphy, now 60. "We went back every year and kept going and renting for 25 years before we bought our cabin seven years ago. We would go feed the ducks at the Greer Lodge. We would watch beavers build dams. It was a magical place - like a Norman Rockwell painting.

"It was green and there was water. We taught our kids how to enjoy being outside. There was no TV, and we played games in the cabin."

After their kids got older and left home, the couple bought the northernmost privately owned cabin at the end of East Fork Road, on 1.5 acres, bordered on two sides by Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest land and gifted with a tiny guest cabin. It was one of the most sought-after spots in Greer, whose year-round population has been estimated at 90 to 200.

The cabin was built of hand-hewn logs from the 1950s. They roasted marshmallows there, brought in antique lamps and vases that had been owned by Murphy-Darling's mother and marveled at the off-white, enamel kitchen cabinets - "like the ones who had in the '50s - so retro. Everyone told us these cabinets were so cool - we will not be able to find those anywhere."

Greer has long inspired superlatives from those who visit or live there. Nestled in mountains, defined by greenery, with 30 lakes within a few hours' drive and 200 miles of trout streams within an hour's drive, Greer has to many people become an escape hatch from civilization. You could hike, fish and bird-watch in the summer, gaze at yellowing aspen leaves in the fall and ski in the winter.

"I never planned on staying there. It was more of a summer job. I fell in love with the place and stayed. I started my business, and a two-month job turned into a five-year life," said Tucsonan-turned-Greer-resident Kristi Spillman , who owns a food truck that is one of Greer's few businesses. The cabin she shares with boyfriend Michael Carter II survived and she wants to get back to it soon, although she plans to get a permit Monday from Navajo County officials to operate her food truck in the Lakeside-Pinetop area for now.

went there every summer

Ron Kain, another Tucsonan who now resides in Greer, turns 50 today, a week and a day after he evacuated his rental cabin in Greer on the advice of fire officials. A chef at Molly Butler Lodge, and at the Greer Lodge before that, Kain lives in the southern part of Greer below the Amberian Peaks Resort and between two forks of the Little Colorado River - right where the fire raged into town last Wednesday.

A home that's been on the market for $1.2 million 50 yards away from Kain's burned down, but Kain saw aerial shots on TV news Thursday of his home still standing, he said from the cot at the evacuation center in Lakeside.

Kain, born in St. Mary's Hospital, grew up in a large family and went to Greer with his parents every summer. They'd stay at Big Lake, a popular fishing area just south of town.

"I liked the smell of it. It smelled like Colorado," recalled Kain, who later worked as a chef in Tucson at several now-defunct restaurants such as F.C. Lamar's and Jerome's. "My dad would never let the cooler on at home after 10 p.m. in the summer. So if you didn't get to sleep before it went off, you had to work at it. In Greer, all you have to do is crash, and by 4 a.m. you will need sheets or a blanket, even in mid-June."

While living in Greer for the past six years, he walked every morning for a mile or two along the Little Colorado River through "an immense old-growth forest," and fished and hunted there regularly. He was one of the last to leave when the evacuation order came, he said.

He took with him two cats and six 2-week-old kittens. He left behind one kitten he couldn't catch - it got skittish and clawed Kain's chest before jumping away. But Kain wasn't too worried: "He will still be there when I get back. I left him enough food for two months and water for longer than that."

One of the last - if not the last - Greer resident to leave, Bob Pollock, evacuated last Tuesday at 2:10 p.m., with firetrucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles lined up on the street. Previously, "I just wanted to stay on my property and protect my asset. I thought I would be able to get out of there in a safe fashion," said Pollock, a realtor and partner in Greer Land & Investments Co.

"But when I saw the flames trying to come over the ridge, I skedaddled," he recalled Friday in a telephone interview from Lakeside, where he was staying with a friend. "It was an intimidating sight out there. It was a wall of darkness with orange and black broiling in the sky."

a symbol of hope

One thing Murphy-Darling knows for sure is that the hand-hewn logs from her burned home can't be replaced. She hopes to build a cabin that is sustainable and energy efficient, using fire-resistant building materials and natural lighting.

"There's so much tragedy in communities throughout the country. It would be great to produce something that said we rebuilt, it's green," she said. "We'll try to turn this tragedy into a symbol of hope."

Shelly Titsworth and her family also have some tough decisions ahead about their Greer house that burned. She manages the East Fork Cabins for her grandparents, Bob and Claire Schnaufer of Tucson. The family's main house that is connected to the cabins - which the Schnaufers bought in 1972 - burned down last week, but the cabins weren't damaged.

"My birthday is June 7 and until this year I spent every birthday in my whole life there in Greer," Titsworth said. "I was there with my grandparents. It is very weird, not to be there, very sad."

But before her family can think about rebuilding, they have to keep the business afloat. It's already had tough times from the economic slump, but this year, business was looking good, she said. They were pretty well booked through July and August, and even had some reservations for early fall before the fire hit, she said. But now, even the water tank leading to the cabins from the main house is burned - "I'm going to have a lot of things to take care of to get back in business."

Even in Show Low, far from the fire, the blaze has hurt tourism. Show Low Days, an annual festival held at a city park a week ago, drew 50 percent fewer people than usual , said Len Utt, director of the Show Low Chamber of Commerce's tourism center.

"A lot of people from the Phoenix area and from Tucson, they want to know the smoke conditions up here. As long as we have the fire going, tourism will be down."

Molly Butler's in Greer had to cancel weddings and numerous cabin and room reservations due to the fire. Last week, its owner was seeking help not just for his business but for all of Greer.

"We're trying to do all we can to stay positive and keep everyone lifted," said Allan Johnson, whose lodge on Greer's west side wasn't harmed. "It's very tough. I'm getting multiple emails and phone calls asking what's going on up there. These are very emotional times right now for everyone. I have customers in tears calling us and cabin owners in tears. We've tried to provide a little bit of calm comforting."

In return, Johnson said, they need Arizonans to come back to Greer as soon as possible.

"Please come up and visit us," he said. "It's still beautiful. It's one of a kind. It's a paradise."

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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