MANNFORD, Okla. - It’s a phone call Joe Anaya will never forget.
The voice at the other end told Joe an out of control wildfire was threatening his family’s home.
View a photo gallery of the wildfire damage. Follow this link on mobile -- http://bit.ly/okfirephotos
By the time Joe arrived to his house south of Mannford, it was too late.
“You’re seeing the total destruction of our dream home, our business, our lives. In one swoop we lost everything,” Joe said, standing on the charred remains of his home on Aug. 5.
Fueled by heavy winds, the wildfire, along with smaller fires, burned nearly 60,000 acres across drought-stricken Creek County, becoming the largest wildfire in state history.
As Joe showed a 2News crew the damage the fire caused to his neighborhood, the homes reduced to piles of rubble, he declared, “As a community, we will rebuild.”
Six months later, the pile of rubble in front of Joe’s home is gone. It has been replaced by stacks of wooden beams that lie next to a skeletal structure, which will soon be Joe and his family’s new home.
Not everyone in Joe’s neighborhood decided to rebuild. In fact, several residents left the area, noticeable by the empty lots scattered throughout the county.
Other residents moved into trailer homes on their property.
For some the trailers are temporary, as construction is underway on new homes.
For others the trailers have become a permanent oasis, evident by the fact that there is no sign of construction taking place on or near their property.
“We decided to stay because this is our community and this is where we wanted to raise our kids,” Joe said, looking up at the unfinished construction.
Joe is rebuilding his home himself.
While the rebuilding has been slow, Joe doubts he would be this far along without the neighbors who stayed, some of whom he didn’t meet until after the fire.
“These people stepped up and filled the gap and said ‘What do you need? What can we do for you?’ with nothing in return,” he said.
The community also lent its support to area fire departments, many of them all-volunteer, helping to replenish water and food supplies that ran low during the fires.
In the months that followed, monetary donations poured in to some area departments like the Freedom Hill.
Freedom Hill recently accepted a $3,000 donation from Centralia Fire Department, Vinita Church of Christ and the Mannford Church of Christ, according to the department’s Facebook page.
The community also showed strong support to Mannford schools, which received a ton of donated supplies when the school year started.
More than 70 students and five staff members lost homes in the fire.
First grade teacher Betty Keesee talked about the fire with her students at the beginning of the school year.
“We tried to be as upbeat as possible about it and just tried to show them that they had a safe environment,” she said.
The students responded positively.
“The children have pulled through this really well,” she said. “To me, it seems they are back on track. They’re into their school work without the repercussions that we would have expected, so they have done really well.”
As for the person who authorities believe caused the fire by tossing a lit cigarette, Billy Cloud remains on the run. Authorities believe Cloud is still somewhere in Oklahoma.
But those who refuse to run from problems, like Joe, are focused on rebuilding their homes and lives.
“You can’t run from the ashes. You built from the ashes,” said Joe.
And from the ashes, Creek County is slowly but surely rising again.
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