By Tim Gaynor
SIERRA VISTA, Ariz (Reuters) - Retiree Vernon Marquez watched in horror as the wind-whipped wild fire sprinted over the last quarter of a mile of grasslands toward his home in southern Arizona.
"I had just enough time to walk back into the house and come out, and it was already on me," he said.
"When it hit, there was a 60-foot wall of flame ... One building just exploded ... it was the most amazing thing I had seen in my life," he added.
The retired financial advisor is among nearly 11,000 people driven from their homes by the Monument Fire in southern Arizona, which has torn through the Huachuca Mountains and burned scores of homes near Sierra Vista.
Fleeing residents have lodged with friends and family, in local hotels and motels and at four evacuation centers set up in this rugged corner of southeast Arizona as they await news of their abandoned homes.
As the raging blaze bore down on her home last Friday, authorities gave retiree Carol Godoy, 78, ten minutes to gather up a few possessions before fleeing her home near the city, a few miles from the Mexico border.
"I just took things that could never be replaced, like my husband's mother's picture ... and the dogs," she said, as she sat at an American Red Cross run evacuation center set up in the Buena High School in Sierra Vista.
"There's a chance that it got burned out, though I haven't told my husband yet," she added.
Her anxiety was shared by fellow evacuee Deborah Simms, a supervisor at a call center in Sierra Vista, who was ordered out of her home on Friday as the eastern edge of the fire bore down on her home..
"I was trying to be hopeful as I saw the fire come down the mountain, but then they announced the edge of the fire was our street," she said, fighting back tears as she stood in the foyer of the school, as volunteers sowed quilts and offered to wash clothes and walk dogs for evacuees.
"It was like 'Oh my God, 13 years have maybe just gone,'" said the mother of four, who managed to grab a quilt made by her aunt when she got married, her children's baby clothes and cherished family photos before fleeing.
Sitting on a bench outside the school, retired barber Mike Clark shook his walking stick at a broad plume of smoke curling up from the Huachuca Mountains and throwing a pall across the valley, and asked a question shared by thousands around the city.
"When's that fire going to quit?" he said. "I want to go home."
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune)