'Monster' fire chases residents, firefighters from Arizona town

Friday, June 21, 2002

SHOW LOW, Ariz. -- A huge fire in the tinder-dry forests of eastern Arizona raced through a hastily abandoned town Thursday, chasing firefighters off the line and prompting an evacuation warning for thousands of nearby residents.

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

The fire roared through the upscale vacation community of Pinedale, but the extent of the damage wasn't immediately known. Navajo County Manager Eddie Koury said his staff had seen at least five homes ablaze.

Virtually all 390 residents had fled a day earlier and fire crews had to pull back because the fire was too dangerous. Officials estimated the flames were reaching 2,000 degrees.

"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature right now. There's not a whole lot we can do with it," said Larry Humphrey, the incident fire commander.

The so-called Rodeo fire has charred 60,000 acres since it began Tuesday about 110 miles northeast of Phoenix and it was nowhere close to being contained. It has forced more than 4,000 people to flee their homes in Pinedale, Linden and Clay Springs.

Another 13,900 residents in the region were put on alert that they may have to leave on an hour's notice because of the Rodeo fire and a second blaze that began nearby on Thursday. Fire information officer Dorman McGann said the new, 1,500-acre fire was started by a woman lost in the woods, but other details were not immediately provided.

Marilyn Price, the fire chief in Linden, said her department had to pull crews out of Pinedale because the Rodeo fire was "so fast and so hot."

At an evacuation center 60 miles away, Pinedale residents wept as they were told the bad news. Also sobbing was Lana Rexroat, a mother of four who is expecting another child in six weeks, after learning the blaze was within three miles of her home in Clay Springs.

"I want to have a home to take my baby to in six weeks," she said.

Authorities warned more than 11,000 people in the Show Low area east of Pinedale and nearly 3,000 in two communities west of Pinedale to be ready to flee.

19 major fires

The Rodeo fire was one of 19 major blazes burning across the nation Thursday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Wildfires have scorched 1.84 million acres so far this year -- far ahead of the 10-year average of 888,000 acres.

In Colorado, crews took advantage of rain and cooler weather to attack a 136,000-acre blaze that has burned at least 25 homes and forced 8,900 evacuations since June 8. In federal court in Denver on Thursday, Forest Service employee Terry Barton pleaded innocent to charges accusing her of setting the fire.

In southwestern Colorado, two large fires continued to rage out of control after forcing hundreds of people out of their homes.

Crews near Durango, Colo., tried to protect a trio of communications towers from a 54,000-acre fire that jumped containment lines Wednesday and again Thursday.

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