Archive for Sunday, June 23, 2002

Arizona wildfires raging out of control toward cities, as many as than 25,000 evacuated

June 23, 2002


— Flames roared unchecked toward this mountain city Sunday after overrunning another community in the dry, forested highlands of eastern Arizona.

At least 82 homes have been destroyed by the huge blaze and as many as 25,000 people have fled more than half a dozen towns.

National Interagency Fire Center:

Firefighters feared wind blowing out of the southwest could swing toward the east, putting it on a path toward Show Low, a town of 7,700 people. Afternoon temperatures were expected in the 90s, with single-digit humidity.

"The fire is going to move through Show Low," fire spokesman Jim Paxon said. He said it could hit the western outskirts of town during the afternoon.

"We're going to get beat up pretty hard," he said.

Two enormous, wind-driven wildfires were believed to have merged into a 50-mile-long line of flame devouring the paper-dry forest. About 235,000 acres - 367 square miles - have burned since Thursday.

Show Low's residents were ordered out late Saturday after the flames jumped a fire line crews had been building about eight miles west of town, and the 3,500 residents of neighboring Pinetop-Lakeside followed early Sunday.

Firefighters expected the fire to reach the westernmost neighborhoods of Show Low by midday, Paxon said. In Linden, a small town just west of Show Low that was already evacuated, firefighters sprayed foam and wrapped houses in fireproof material as flames pushed through.

"Nature's in control," fire spokesman Jim Paxon said. "She's dealing the hand."

Sixty-eight of the destroyed homes were in Heber-Overgaard, a community 35 miles west of Show Low that was overrun Saturday, said Dorman McGann, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

However, Paxon said firefighters were able to save a large number of homes in Heber-Overgaard, whose 2,700 residents had been evacuated earlier. Air tankers dropped flame-retardant slurry directly on houses.

The wildfires earlier burned through parts of the evacuated towns of Pinedale and Clay Springs.

Gov. Jane Hull, who owns a cabin in Pinetop-Lakeside, said she expected President Bush to issue a federal disaster declaration.

"My heart breaks for the people who own cabins up there who don't know what's going on," Hull said at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Phoenix.

A steady stream of residents had headed out of Show Low late Saturday.

"It's a monster. It's awesome," said Bobby Smith, who had been staying in Show Low after having already been evacuated from Pinedale. "It's unbelievable what a big fire can do."

The area, popular with hikers and Phoenix-area residents escaping the desert heat, is covered with pinon, juniper and pine trees made explosively dry by years of drought.

The largest fire, burning since Tuesday, was thought to be human-caused, although authorities didn't know whether it was an accident or arson. The other was started Thursday by a lost hiker signaling for help.

Residents evacuated Saturday night were told to head to shelters in Eagar, 30 miles to the east, and Holbrook, 30 miles to the north.

More than 3,000 had registered at the shelter in Eagar, where cots covered the artificial turf of a domed high school football stadium, said National Guard Maj. William Wilhoit.

In southwestern Colorado, crews struggled against an unpredictable 67,700-acre blaze that had destroyed 45 homes near Durango. Cool, calm weather helped firefighters battling a larger fire south of Denver, but hot, dry weather was expected Sunday afternoon.

The 137,000-acre blaze south of Denver was 60 percent contained. It has destroyed at least 114 homes and about 420 other buildings. The National Interagency Fire Center said about 2,300 people remained under evacuation orders, down from 8,900 last week.

U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton was arrested last week for allegedly setting the Denver-area fire. She pleaded innocent to four federal counts, including arson, and was held on $600,000 bond.

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