Survivors will never forget the "fire tornado" that destroyed their homes and killed 19 elite firefighters last June near the mountain town of Yarnell, Ariz., about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Keith Miller and his wife were sipping iced tea on their back porch when they saw the lightning strike that sparked the blaze on June 28, 2013. Two days later, winds quickly changed direction, pushing the flames toward Yarnell. Those in the path of the fires had mere minutes to escape.
Keith was out in the yard and saw the flames at 10-12 feet high some distance away. After turning around to do some yard work for a few minutes, he looked back and saw "a wall of flame 100-150 feet, maybe 200 feet, high."
The Millers evacuated in their vehicles as the fire reached the big oaks and other trees on their property. "When that storm hit it, it was like a large tornado," Keith said."It left very little standing. Even a chain link fence was burned to the ground. Our house burned totally. After we cleaned it up, you could see holes in the concrete floor. That’s how hot it was. I’ve never seen anything like it."
About 20 American Legion Family members, including the Millers, received National Emergency Fund (NEF) grants in the wake of the wildfires.
"I’m glad I keep my membership up because they (Legion members) were wonderful," Keith said. "They didn’t ask a lot of questions. They came to help."
In a matter of days, the Millers had a check that they used to help pay the rent. "I couldn’t believe it. There’s no one that came through as fast as the Legion did. It makes you want to pay your dues. I think it’s great.
"The Legion did a lot of good. A lot of good."
Arizona and much of the southwest remain under a drought, making conditions ripe for dangerous wildfires again. At the same time, spring ushers in severe weather season and the risk of tornadoes affecting Midwestern states.
The elevated risk of severe weather concerns American Legion National Commander Dan Dellinger, who has made NEF his primary fundraising project.
"You’re going to start seeing tornadoes through Tornado Alley and through the south," Dellinger said. "I just don’t want to be in a position where we are not prepared. It’s essential that we continue our quest to make sure that monies are available when necessary to make sure that we take care of our veterans and their families."
As Dellinger has traveled across the country, he has heard appreciation firsthand from veterans who have received NEF grants in a time of need.
"A gentleman in Missouri came up to me and said he never thought he’d ever have the need for the grant, but he was so grateful for getting the grant," Dellinger said. "It really made a difference when he needed it because we were there within three days and made sure he had his check within another three days. That first week is critical. That’s what we need to remember. Of all the good that we do, this is the most important time, right at the beginning. The worse thing is when there is no house, and you have to count the driveways to see where a member lived. That’s heartbreaking."
Clint Bangs, a Vietnam veteran, remembers seeing the flames and smoke coming closer to his 5-acre property in Yarnell. He moved his Harley-Davidson, guns and other valuables to American Legion Post 79, across the highway from his home.
Bangs walked home, hosed down as much of his two-story house and property as he could, and then talked to his sister on the phone for 15 minutes.
"Then I walked into the back and my whole backyard was 60-foot flames going like a tornado fire," he recalled. "It was burning the back property. It was going like a wildfire then."
The fires came within 15 feet of his home, which suffered heavy damage from water that was dropped by helicopters to control the blaze. "I walked back into the house and could not believe what I was seeing. It was like a bomb had gone off but I never heard it."
He used his NEF money to secure his home in the immediate aftermath since looters were targeting nearby abandoned homes.
Bangs has repaired much of the damage but figures it will take another year to fix everything. "I was thankful (to the Legion) to get whatever I could get," he said. "It’s karma. And not just from being in the military. I guess it was how I was brought up. I’ll give you my last dollar if you really need it. Because I don’t need it."