Fires across West force evacuations of thousands

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Associated Press Writer

SHOW LOW, Ariz. (AP) -- An out-of-control wildfire roared across 60,000 acres of forest in eastern Arizona on Thursday and began burning structures on the outskirts of a deserted community, officials said.

The town, Pinedale, was one of three that were evacuated after the fire exploded on Wednesday. As many as 4,000 people fled Pinedale, Linden and Clay Springs as the fire swept toward their homes.

"This is a monster," said Jim Paxon, a U.S. Forest Service fire information officer.

Forest Service officials were not immediately sure how many structures were burning near Pinedale and whether they were homes.

The Rodeo fire has scorched a 6-mile-wide swath through bone-dry pine, pinon and juniper trees in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Residents of nearby Show Low, a town of 7,700 about 125 miles northeast of Phoenix, and neighboring Pinetop-Lakeside, where an additional 3,500 people live, were told to be ready to flee on an hour's notice.

"It makes me a little nervous to know it's coming and there's nothing we can do about it," Show Low resident Ben Butler said as he packed legal documents into the trunk of his car Thursday. He said he and his wife had stayed up all night preparing to leave.

Gary Butler, sheriff in Navajo County, said early Thursday that three log cabins had burned in Pinedale. But Bob Dyson, a spokesman for the national forest, said no structures had burned.

Firefighters could only watch the fire; they didn't fight it overnight because it was too dangerous, officials said.

Authorities didn't know how the fire started but noted that without lightning in the area it had to be caused by human activity.

The fire was one of 19 major blazes burning across the nation Thursday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Overall, wildfires have scorched 1.84 million acres so far this year, more than double the 10-year average through this time of the year.

In Colorado, veteran Forest Service worker Terry Barton was charged Wednesday with deliberately setting a wildfire southwest of Denver that has grown to 136,000 acres, destroyed at least 25 houses and forced 7,500 people from their homes since June 8.

The charges were filed after prosecutors expressed doubt in her story that the fire got out of hand as she burned a letter from her estranged husband.

The fire grew at a slower pace Wednesday, thanks to higher humidity and cooler temperatures, and similar weather was forecast for Thursday. Rain fell through the night in the Denver area and on parts of the fire, although it wasn't nearly enough to put it out.

"The main thing is that it will raise humidities and cool temperatures," fire information officer Dan Kincaid said. "We should be able to get in there, hopefully (Thursday) and work on line construction."

The blaze was just 40 percent contained.

The Arizona fire began Tuesday about a quarter-mile northeast of Cibeque, growing to about 1,200 acres by midday Wednesday before exploding. The sheriff said authorities had been expecting a blaze of this magnitude because of the dry conditions in the state's forests.

"It wasn't if it was going to happen, but when it was going to happen," he said. "We just knew the big one was coming."

Gov. Jane Hull declared a state of emergency to free up funds to fight the blaze, which is believed to have been caused by people.

Meanwhile, local fire officials sprayed down homes to try to keep them safe.

There also were evacuations in New Mexico, where authorities went door-to-door in two canyons near Rociada, northeast of Santa Fe, to clear 21 families from their homes in advance of a 4,390-acre fire burning in the Pecos Wilderness.

In southwestern Colorado, near Durango, firefighters battling a fast-growing 54,000-acre blaze were focused on saving homes.

The fire, burning since June 9, grew by more than 9,500 acres Wednesday, jumping containment lines and threatening more than 400 homes. About 33 homes and 26 other structures have been destroyed and more than 1,760 homes have been evacuated.

A third Colorado fire, just 70 miles from Durango, forced 2,000 people out of their homes Wednesday near the community of South Fork. Half of the people were allowed to return home Thursday, but the fire had grown to more than 5,000 acres and destroyed at least eight homes, authorities said.

In California, cooler temperatures and calmer winds helped firefighters battling multiple blazes that have led to the deaths of an air tanker flight crew and the destruction of 13 homes.

Wind had died down at the scene of the wildfire near Yosemite National Park where three firefighters were killed Monday in an air tanker crash. The blaze, which began on Saturday, has blackened nearly 22,000 acres.


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