A Bonita Creek couple watched a lifetime of memories and treasures burn away Feb. 23 when their multi-million-dollar home was destroyed in a fiery blaze that took firefighters more than 14 hours to suppress.
Along with their two-story, custom-built home, at 405 Big Al’s Run, everything inside was reduced to a pile of ash, including a full-sized giraffe and 21 other big game trophies ranging from a bear, Cape buffalo, wildebeest, red stag, impala, warthog and leopard. The home also held a collection of rare musical instruments.
“The thing that makes me cry the most is that I don’t think I can do it again,” homeowner Gerald Graham said. “I don’t have the ability to rebuild. I almost had a nervous breakdown two days ago.”
Adding to the stress of losing his home, Graham’s wife Velma has had two heart attacks in the last two months.
The Grahams designed the lodge-style home together in 2001 over the course of six months.
Graham had acquired the two-acre plot back in 1968 when he was only 30 years old. At the time, he and a business partner bought 100 acres in Bonita Creek from a developer.
Through the years, Graham sold off most of the plots, except for four — three of which he gave to his children.
When Graham remarried, he and Velma decided to build their dream home in Bonita Creek.
In 2002, construction started with Graham taking painstaking steps to perfect every detail of the home. From the 28-foot-high ceiling in the living room, to the grand staircases leading to the second floor, cedar ceilings and even the interior doors that Graham painted himself — few details were unnoticed.
“Everything in it was me,” he said.
“If you walked in the front door, a full-size giraffe greeted you in the living room.”
Visitors could even come “eyeball to eyeball” with the giraffe from the top of the staircase.
“We had a place that was special and we got to live there for 10 years,” he said. “I was happy with every single square foot.”
While investigators say intense heat from the fire destroyed even the home’s foundation, firefighters stopped the blaze from spreading to the yard. Thirteen bronze sculptures of children and eight of animals, including a seven-foot-tall golden eagle stand eerily beside piles of ash.
Although the machine shop and woodworking tools are replaceable, the loss of paperwork and photographs hits the Grahams the hardest. Some of the papers detailed the development of Bonita Creek while photos captured Graham and his family’s travels.
Gerald, a professional photographer, even had a collection of award-winning underwater photographs.
“We have nothing left,” he said. “Only two changes of clothes.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Det. George Ratliff, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, said it appears the fire started in one of the bedrooms.
The Grahams were not at home when the fire started because they had gone to Tucson so Graham could hunt with his son.
Sometime around 1:30 a.m., a neighbor saw 50-foot flames shooting from the forest and called for help. Another neighbor, who did not know the Grahams were away, called Gerald asking if he could see the fire from his home.
When Gerald learned his landline was busy, he knew it was his home.
The Grahams jumped in their vehicle and headed to Payson.
Before the Grahams arrived home, they got a call from the GCSO that the home was already gone.
“It was a very hot fire,” Ratliff said. “By the time a sheriff’s deputy got there, it had already gone through the roof.”
Graham does not know what could have started the fire because before he left, he made sure ashes in the fireplace were out.
The only thing untouched by the blaze is the couple’s guest home, which Graham may turn into a vacation home. The thought of rebuilding, however, is too painful to consider.
“I promised myself I would not make any major decisions in the next six months,” he said. “I have only seen (the home) once and I really don’t want to go back.”