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Raging Fires Spark Cooperative Spirit

Disaster: Law enforcement officials are lending a hand as blazes tear through the mountains of Colorado. Evacuations continue.

June 21, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DURANGO, Colo. — It was a tossup which was the more distinctive smell--the bitter pungent odor of the forest fire that was scorching conifers and ponderosa pine in the western Rocky Mountains or the fried chicken inside the food-filled SUV that Dan Bender was tooling around in, searching for fires and firefighters.

Driving through the deceivingly quiet midsection of a 59,000-acre fire, Bender--a local sheriff's lieutenant and SWAT commander--was helping overwhelmed firefighters track so-called spot fires--small, smoldering fires ignited by embers blown from the mother blaze. If not spotted and extinguished, they could erupt into full-blown blazes and level homes surrounding two lakes.

He stopped alongside a small lake and radioed his dispatcher. "One, two, three, four spot fires, east side of Vallecito Lake, near a stretch of six homes."

Within 10 minutes, a lumbering Chinook helicopter dropped its bucket into the lake, pulled up 600 gallons of water and dumped it on the most threatening spot fire.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Arizona blaze--The name of a town evacuated in Arizona because of a wildfire was incorrect in a story in Friday's Section A. The evacuated town is Pinedale, not Pineville.

It was a small victory in the face of such enormity, but Bender said it proved the value of law enforcement's partnership with firefighters. "There are more than 1,000 firefighters out here somewhere," he said. "But this is a big forest, and it swallows up 1,000 firefighters pretty quickly."

Indeed, monster blazes in Colorado and Arizona seemed to be swallowing any efforts Thursday to contain them.

The newest fire threatened mountain communities about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix. The Rodeo fire, which was only 600 acres Tuesday, had grown to at least 85,000 acres Thursday night.

About 4,000 residents of Clay Springs, Pineville and Linden were evacuated Wednesday. On Thursday, the fire swept through Pineville, forcing firefighters to hastily retreat. Authorities had not counted the number of lost structures. The 7,700 residents of Show Low were told to prepare to leave, authorities said.

A 2,600-acre blaze nearby, apparently resulting from a signal fire set by a lost hiker, forced the evacuation of the 1,500 residents of Heber and Overgaard.

Outside Denver, the Hayman fire, which has burned 136,000 acres of timber and brush, stalled somewhat Thursday with cooler temperatures but flared up on one front, forcing firefighters to run for their lives. About 95 structures have been destroyed by the blaze, including homes, barns and other buildings.

Officials said the blaze, the biggest in Colorado history, will be burning for weeks.

Here in Durango, about 240 miles southwest of Denver, firefighters were flustered by the antics of the Missionary Ridge fire. It was burning in three directions and late Thursday erupted in an unexpected flurry of flames on the western front.

La Plata County emergency officials ordered hundreds of residents below the burning mountain slopes not just to evacuate but to flee.

The fire was probably sparked by the hot carbon droppings of a car's catalytic converter along a forest service road, authorities said. It has destroyed 33 homes and was threatening more. With firefighters overwhelmed, Bender and about 30 other sheriff's deputies and supervisors--even the sheriff--were helping.

One day they're rapping on doors, ordering residents to evacuate. Another day, they're staffing roadblocks, preventing residents from returning or escorting people to their homes for emergency reasons. On Thursday, Bender was on food and spot fire duty, handing out snacks to hungry firefighters while looking for spindly columns of white smoke that, if this were winter, might suggest a roaring fireplace in a snug mountain cabin.

The 51-year-old law officer stopped at the north end of Vallecito Lake--mostly caked mudflats now--and marveled at the fire's fury.

The water level is only 5% of normal because of the drought. In the middle of the dry lake, vehicles that had been parked there by residents for safety had blistered from the heat of the forest fire a quarter-mile away. The firestorm's winds toppled a pickup truck camper and a swath of trees.

Standing atop the lake's earthen dam, Bender watched smoke rise from rocks, and he wondered what in the world was burning.

Eventually, Bender came across eight hungry firefighters from Spokane and Winthrop, Wash., some sitting in their vehicles and others scattered on the porch of a home in the middle of a grassy valley. On ridgelines all around them, plumes of smoke turned the sky slate gray; this group was prepared to put out any nearby spot fires.

Bender got out of his truck and unloaded boxes of fried chicken, candy, drinks, chewing tobacco, gum and other snacks. "Holy moley, this is good," said one firefighter, tearing into a meaty thigh. Said another, "Durango has been awfully good to us. People are donating all sorts of stuff. Some even tried to give us money."

Two firefighters from South Dakota drove up in their pickup, saying they were trying to find their crew. Bender gave the pair food and sent them to a shady canyon.

Bender returned to his fire patrol, and the routine continued. Two, three, four spot fires to the north. Four--no, five--fires over there. Little plumes of white smoke everywhere, each with the potential to erupt in a forest so large, it swallows firefighters.

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