Firefighters being sent home from contained Arizona forest fire

Monday, July 8, 2002

PHOENIX -- After weeks of battling the largest wildfire in Arizona history, firefighters from around the country were being reassigned to other states or sent home as the fire neared full containment Sunday.

About 1,100 firefighters and support staff remained on the fire lines, down from more than 4,400 in late June when the blaze was burning out of control and threatening hundreds of homes, fire spokesman Paul Ensminger said.

Ensminger said the remaining workers were mopping up smoldering embers.

They also were beginning to restore land that had been scarred by bulldozers and burned clean of foliage that had been holding the soil in place. As they work, the crews are seeding the burned land with native grasses to help mitigate erosion from the coming monsoon rain season, he said.

The massive wildfire started in two locations on June 18 and June 20, and burned across 468,638 acres of eastern Arizona's White Mountains, destroying 467 homes and causing at least $28 million in damage.

The last of the 30,000 people forced to evacuate nine communities in the fire's path were allowed to return last week.

"When you get home, there's a tremendous amount of adjustment after something like this. You're still exhausted and you don't realize the mental and emotional strain this takes out of you," said Mel Coleman, whose home in Linden survived the fire.

Escaping the flames

The town of Show Low, home to 7,700 people, barely escaped the flames.

Linden lost 100 homes. Heber-Overgaard lost more than 200.

Both parts of the fire were started by humans. One began when a lost hiker tried to signal for help.

Authorities say the other was started intentionally by a part-time firefighter who wanted the money he would get for helping fight it. On June 23, the two blazes merged into a 50-mile-wide wall of flames.

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