Hundreds left homeless by raging fires in West

PAYSON, Ariz. -- In a year when forests are drier than cut wood, the West's worst fears are being realized across the region: Huge fires burning out of control at once. Tens of thousands evacuated. Hundreds left homeless. Fire crews fatigued and stretched thin as more blazes erupt.

It is unprecedented -- and with summer not even a week old, it is unlikely to end anytime soon.

By this point in the 2000 fire season, the nation's worst in a half-century, 1.3 million acres had burned across the United States. This year, that number has topped 2.3 million.

In 2000, the worst fire of the season was the one that tore through Los Alamos, N.M., scorching about 43,000 acres and leveling 235 homes. This year, two fires burning simultaneously in Arizona and Colorado have burned almost a half-million acres and destroyed at least 462 homes.

"This much activity spread across this large an area that is threatening peoples' homes and communities is unprecedented," said Nancy Lull, a spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The fire season grew worse as two explosive blazes linked in the mountains of Arizona, forming a 330,000-acre blaze that has destroyed at least 329 houses and forced 30,000 people from their homes.

For the experts, this season is the culmination of years of warnings about forests thick with brush and other debris, about the dangers of building more and more homes farther into the woods, and about what can happen when drought is thrown into the mix.

For those the flames threaten, it is simply their worst nightmare come true.

Early warnings

The fire season started months early because of a long drought. In early spring, with moisture levels in trees, grasses and brush at record lows, analysts already were warning that this could be one of the most dangerous fire seasons on record.

By May, 2,744 wildfires had scorched more than 100,000 acres in the West and Alaska. Over the past two months, that has grown to 9,700 fires across 1.8 million acres.

Among the most damaging: a blaze southwest of Denver, which investigators say was set June 8 by a U.S. Forest Service employee. It has inflated to Colorado's largest wildfire ever, charring 137,000 acres and destroying 133 homes. It is just 69 percent contained.

And now the Arizona fire, which began as two side-by-side blazes that merged on Sunday. The colossal fire was still raging out of control on a destructive march toward Show Low, the commercial hub of a region that relies on recreation and tourism in its pine-blanketed mountains.

What usually douses the Southwest fire season is the summer monsoon, which generally develops the first week of July in New Mexico and Arizona. But while the monsoon should arrive on time, it is not expected to bring the widespread rains necessary to significantly reduce the fire risk, said Tom Wordell, a fire analyst at the Idaho center.