Close Call: Local couple has brush with disaster

By: Madison Cerro

CAVE CREEK- Midday on May 30, Bob Bell and his wife, Kathy, narrowly escaped the raging flames of the Ocotillo Fire.
Carried by desert brush and grass, the Ocotillo Fire stretched to approximately 1,000 acres, according to Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. The DFFM reported that the fire began on Saturday, May 30, and was contained in its entirety by June 2.
Saturday morning, Bob and Kathy decided to have friends over for brunch. Mr. Bell noted that their friends left the house at around 11 o’clock in the morning.

Soon after, Bell went out to his studio to work on his art. It was then that he first smelled smoke. “I smelled what I thought was barbeque. I thought my neighbor was barbequing.”
A minute or two went by before Bell realized that the smell was too thick to be coming from a barbeque, Bell said. Then, he saw it. A bloom of smoke filled the sky.

“I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s the second fire in 10 days,’” said Bell.
Bell explained that with the previous fire, he and Kathy had panicked and left their home too early. However, he knew it would be a different story if the fire reached near the Cave Creek cave by their home—due to the thick, invasive weeds.
This time, he said that they were thinking, “We’re veterans now—we’re gonna stay. Until the fire department tells us to leave, we’ll stay.”
As the fire began to creep nearer to their home, Bob and Kathy packed a few things just in case, said Bell.
Within seconds, they watched as the fire leaped into the vacant lot across from them. The flames were about 15 feet high, according to Bell.

In that moment, they realized the immediate danger that was upon them. They needed to escape, and quickly.
“I wasn’t ready for this,” said Bell. Separately, Bob and Kathy got into their cars.
As Kathy proceeded to back out and take a left down the narrow road by their house, Bob took a photo of the flames from his driveway—time-stamped at 12:47pm.

As Mr. Bell began driving, he said that the visibility went down to zero.
“I gunned it and tried to bust through there. I was probably going 40 mph for about 20 seconds—though I am sure it was three or four seconds—but it felt like 20 seconds.”

There were flames spreading across his car windshield as he drove. He looked up ahead and noticed Kathy was not ahead of him.
“So I looked in the rearview mirror and saw her car on fire behind me. How I missed her on that narrow road, I’ll never know.”
He put the car in park and started screaming, “Run! Run for it! Run!” As she opened the door and stuck her foot out of her car, the flames surrounded her leg and burned multiple parts of her body.
“She ran into my arms—then we got in my car and left,” said Bell.

Still in severe shock, they made their way to Banner Health. Bob explained the surreal experience of not being able to be in the hospital with his wife due to COVID-19.
“Our whole lives passed before our eyes. All afternoon I kept thinking we had lost our house. We were just convinced,” he said.
When Kathy was finally released from the hospital, they picked up a care package from their daughter. The Tumbleweed Hotel offered them a free condo for the night, and Dominoes Pizza and Harold’s Corral delivered food.
When Bell’s neighbor took him to see the house, he was expecting it to be in complete ruins.
Leading up to the house, Bell said, “There was just black everywhere. Every tree was burned. Every saguaro was burned.”
When he arrived to the house, he saw that the fire had stopped right at the chain link fence that surrounded it. Their home was still standing with zero fire damage.

“When I walked through the front door, I smelled the breakfast I had made that morning for the people that we had over. Nothing in the house was harmed. The house was burned all the way around it—so our house survived,” said Bell.
Bell said that his wife had the weeds around their house removed in two sessions prior to the fire. They believe this is what saved their home from burning down.

For a couple weeks following the fire, Bell said that the wound on Kathy’s leg was “pretty deep.” Now, “she is on the upswing,” he said.
“We’re actually doing pretty well,” said Bell, “She is going to the burn unit on Thursday for her last visit, hopefully. They’re giving her about a week or two to heal.”

Bell said they are grateful to still have their home—and are expecting Kathy will have a full recovery.

— Photos courtesy of Bob “Boze” Bell