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'Awesome' Wildfire in Arizona Could Grow to 300,000 Acres


SHOW LOW, Ariz. — A forest fire that has amazed firefighters with its ferocity continued to spread untamed Friday through the ponderosa pines of eastern Arizona's high country, forcing 5,000 residents to flee and reducing more than a dozen homes to their foundations.

Temperatures at the front of the blaze are so extreme that 80-foot trees "are bursting into flames even before the fire reaches them," said Jim Anderson, who works at Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, which is being mauled by the blaze. "We're not just seeing flames shooting up 400 feet, but balls of gas that are rising in the smoke columns and, when they finally get enough oxygen, exploding in flames at 2,000 feet."

George Leech of the U.S. Forest Service flew over the fire to map its march and said its behavior was extraordinary. Rising plumes of superheated smoke collapsed at higher, cooler altitudes, creating ground-level windstorms that drove 1,000-foot flames horizontal across the forest floor, he said. "It was awesome."

The Rodeo fire erupted Wednesday on a heavily wooded Indian reservation and within a day grew to 48,000 acres; by Friday afternoon it had enveloped 130,000 acres--nearly as large as the massive Hayman fire near Denver that has bedeviled firefighters for two weeks.

A companion fire in Arizona, burning in a parallel direction about 10 miles west of the Rodeo blaze, has consumed 16,000 acres since it started Thursday.

About 3,500 people in its path have been evacuated; about 5,000 residents have fled the Rodeo fire, said Brenda Clark of the Navajo County sheriff's office.

Fire officials worry that if the two fires combine--a likely possibility given the dynamics of the larger blaze creating its own low-pressure system--the conjoined blaze would quickly grow to 300,000 acres.

About 90 residents in the fires' paths have refused to leave their homes, Clark said.

So far, the larger blaze has skirted about six miles from Show Low's west side and was being blown north by winds. Fire officials say that if winds shift easterly, the fire will head directly toward the 7,700 residents of this town--named after a poker game that resolved which of two settlers could remain here. Today's winds are forecast out of the southwest at 25 mph, with single-digit humidity.

In three days, the fire has spread about 25 miles, blackening a swath across one of Arizona's most precious sights--a ponderosa pine forest uncluttered by underbrush, making its mountain grasses especially popular among hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.

On Friday, both fires were burning northward, where a mix of pinyon, junipers and heavy brush will provide less volatile fuel. If it blows eastward toward Show Low, it would have to march through limestone canyons, where bulldozers worked Friday to clear land of dry vegetation.

Leech said the canyons would not be a big hurdle for the raging blaze, and if they are breached, about 11,000 people living in Show Low and neighboring communities would be evacuated.

The two fires were the most active Friday among huge blazes in the West, but not the most threatening.

The Missionary Ridge fire, about 10 miles north of Durango in southwestern Colorado, grew to 60,000 acres and burned 14 more homes Thursday night, officials said. Earlier, 33 homes were destroyed and more than 1,700 others evacuated. Heavy rain Friday afternoon slowed the fire's progress.

Near South Fork, Colo., 70 miles east of Durango, the Million fire had burned 8,000 acres and destroyed 11 homes.

And in the nation's largest blaze, firefighters southwest of Denver tried to capitalize on a second consecutive day of mild weather to better contain the 137,000-acre Hayman fire.

It has destroyed at least 79 homes and has forced 8,900 people to flee the area.

But fire crews are gearing up for an expected onslaught of wind and dry air this weekend.

"We've taken a lot of the snort out of this fire over the last two days," said Steve Frye, who is commanding the fire crews on the southern half of the Hayman blaze. "We've swung the momentum in our favor at least for the last couple of days.

"That will allow us to nail down a large portion of open fire line. It will allow us to withstand the weather threats of the next few days."

Crews had cleared fire lines around about 45 miles of the blaze's 100-mile perimeter. It continued to burn unchecked in unburned parts of its midsection.

Friday night, firefighters were told that a van carrying fire personnel had crashed along Interstate 70 near Parachute, Colo., killing four people. Colorado State Patrol spokesman Don Moseman said the van was from La Grande, Ore., and was carrying 11 people. The other seven passengers were injured, two critically.

The cause of the accident was under investigation, but Moseman said it appeared that the driver was distracted or possibly was reaching for something inside the vehicle.

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