Oak Creek Canyon evacuation order lifted for residents

OAK CREEK CANYON, AZ - Northern Arizona residents and business owners began returning home Thursday, more than a week after a major wildfire forced them to evacuate.

The evacuation order was lifted at 1 p.m. and several people began heading to their property, Coconino County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Erika Wiltenmuth said.

The Slide Fire began May 20 near Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff.

Residents said they felt lucky the fire didn’t reach their homes, though the flames did get close.

“There were several places that… the fire came right up next to their back door,” said Josh Hall, who drove through a road block on Highway 89A shortly after 1 p.m.

Residents must show identification to sheriff's deputies at the roadblock before being allowed to enter. Homeowners can begin cleaning up any debris as well as food that has been sitting in refrigerators without power. Authorities said access to Highway 89A between Flagstaff and Sedona will be restricted through 6 p.m. Friday for residents and business owners.

Wiltenmuth said if residents don't find significant damage and want to remain in their homes, they are free to. However, they cannot go onto forested areas, which authorities have declared off-limits.

Electricity is expected to be restored to all homes in the affected area by 4 p.m. Friday. About 150 Arizona Public Service workers have been working to bring back power. According to APS, about 90 of 236 Oak Creek Canyon customers have gotten electricity back up.

APS crews used a helicopter Thursday to hoist replacement utility poles into the canyon; the fire damaged six miles of electrical line, according to a news release from the utility.

Some residents, such as Tom Gebler, have elected to not join the initial rush of people eager to see their home.

Gebler, a flooring designer, said a sheriff's official escorted him two days after the fire broke out so he could retrieve more things from his home. Gebler said he and his wife, Sally, didn't see any structural or aesthetic damage.

"There's the curiosity of wanting to know. But whether we find out today, tomorrow or Saturday, it isn't going to change what we're going to see," Gebler said. "Also, we are waiting to hear about when the power is going to come back on."

A Phoenix native, Gebler made the home his grandfather built his permanent home in 2007. The only possessions he needs to move back in are family antiques, artwork and photos.

"As scary and as bad as this all was, we've come out pretty well," Gebler said.

The fire has burned nearly 33 square miles so far, but containment has reached 55 percent. Cost of fighting the fire is estimated at $8 million.

Officials have not decided when Pine Flat Campground, which is in the canyon, will reopen.

There is no timeline to allow tourists past the roadblock, authorities on scene said.

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