A small desert community assembled to protect its most vulnerable
CAVE CREEK — Lisa and Bruce Arlen wrapped their paintings in bubble wrap and paper for the second time in two weeks.
They sped away from their house after cramming everything into their Ford SUV. Flames and smoke filled their rear view mirror as they fled what was being called the Ocotillo Fire.
The Ocotillo Fire had started just hours before, and it would keep the Arlens out of their home for three days. It raged north through Cave Creek until the winds shifted, stopping right at the edge of Morning Star Road — across from the Arlen’s house.
When the couple returned after the fire was put out, the house was miraculously unscathed.
“We were very fortunate,” Lisa Arlen said two years after the destructive fire, which started May 30, 2020.
Those living south of them were less fortunate.
Fernando Villalobos lived in Cave Creek with his wife, Marcia, for more than 30 years. Like the Arlens, they evacuated as the Ocotillo Fire burned more than 1,000 acres of land and 12 residential structures. But they didn’t return to a miracle.
Their fully-furnished live-in barn and their art studio, where Fernando Villalobos made pottery for a living, were reduced to shards of half-melted glass, warped metal and cement-brick walls.
Left with nothing but an empty, one story house on the five-acre property, they relied solely on their community, which came together to help them and other victims of the fire.
The town of Cave Creek took drastic measures in the aftermath of the Ocotillo Fire and another that started in the same month, working to help prevent another disaster from striking.
Rather than continuing to rely on neighboring towns to come to the rescue, Cave Creek established its own fire department and joined a better system for out-of-town aid. Town officials have also taken steps to educate and train citizens to protect both their homes and the environment from future disaster. And citizens, not just town officials, have done all they can to help each other bounce back.
But the legacies of the Cave Creek fires still loom over the desert town.