Crews battling Arizona wildfire prep residents for return home

Friday, June 28, 2002

SHOW LOW, Ariz. -- With Arizona's monster wildfire slumbering again Thursday, fire bosses shifted their attention to making abandoned neighborhoods safe enough for 30,000 people to finally return home -- or what's left.

The 410,000-acre fire that has destroyed at least 423 homes remained just 5 percent contained Thursday. It flared far south of Show Low in a remote section of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, fire officials said.

Bulldozers nearer to town carved a five-mile line to keep the flames from jumping a highway and threatening some 900 homes.

"When that's done, the whole western perimeter of the fire should be fairly secure," fire spokesman Andy Williams said. That perimeter covers more than 200 miles.

The empty town of Show Low, population 7,700, seemed safe and some firefighters may be shifted to other fronts.

The people of Show Low, Pinetop, Lakeside and Hon-Dah will be the first to return home, possibly in just a few days. It could be another week after that before residents are allowed back in the hardest-hit areas, including Heber-Overgaard, where scores of houses are blackened, twisted ruins.

"I'm not going to let people into these communities and in two or three days have to evacuate them again," Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler said.

Hazardous materials crews, along with utility and natural gas workers, must examine each home site to make sure it is safe. Some of those who lost their homes will get their first look at the damage in a tour Saturday.

"They will not even get off the van," fire spokesman Jim Paxon said. "They will be able to drive by and see their loss and start dealing with that."

Many evacuees don't know if their homes are still standing, let alone when they might be allowed to return.

"Is it going to be a month? Do we get back tomorrow? That's the part that's hard," said Nan Pociask, who fled her home in Overgaard, 35 miles west of Show Low, a week ago.

Videotape shot from the air around Linden, just west of Show Low, showed large homes reduced to white ash and rubble. Fireplace chimneys were all that were standing in what once were picturesque homes nestled in thick stands of big trees. In an RV resort near Overgaard, flames destroyed an estimated 168 homes.

Amid the burned foundation of one home, a washing machine was charred black. Next to it, the freezer door was melted off the refrigerator. An ironing board was propped up nearby, twisted by heat.

It was another bad day for firefighters near Durango, Colo. Authorities evacuated more than 1,000 homes in seven subdivisions for a second time, worried that embers from a 70,000-acre wildfire would spark new blazes.

"It's getting to the point where it doesn't matter anymore what fuel types the fire runs into," said Gary Jarvis, a fire behavior specialist. "It will continue to spread until we get some rain. It's going to be a miracle if we can hold it."

The fire has burned at least 52 homes. Authorities worried that lightning storms and wind gusts up to 50 mph would arrive later Thursday.

Southwest of Denver, crews expected to fully contain the state's largest wildfire on record by Friday. The blaze, which has burned 137,000 acres the past three weeks, has destroyed at least 133 homes. About 880 people remained out of their homes.

On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service employee accused of starting the fire, Terry Barton, was released on $600,000 bail.

In California, a fast-moving blaze sparked by a car fire on Interstate 15 charred 6,700 acres, destroyed three homes and closed Interstate 15, the main artery between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

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On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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