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17 Blazes Charring the West

Wildfires: With more than 2 million acres burned so far this year, questions arise about the federal government's fire policy changes.


SHOW LOW, Ariz. — Two side-by-side fires raced out of control toward homes here Saturday, forcing the evacuation of more than 15,000 residents and dramatizing how a confluence of weather conditions and forestry practices has made this fire season the most treacherous in decades.

Already this year nearly 2.3 million acres have burned nationwide, far eclipsing the 1.3 million acres burned by the same date during the disastrous 2000 fire season and dwarfing the 10-year average of about 920,000 acres.

On Friday alone, 127,138 acres were added to the tally.

"Conditions have never been worse," said Tina Boehle, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The combination of high temperatures and low humidity is the immediate ingredient feeding the 17 major fires burning in eight Western states. The extended drought has added a powerful punch to the mix, leaving the nation's forests especially vulnerable.

But these fires also are so large and are burning so intensely because of a decades-long government policy that hasn't allowed the practice of setting forest fires under controlled circumstances to reduce the brush and timber that stoke wildfires so hot that firefighters can't get close enough to fight them.

The federal policy, influenced heavily by public opinion, also demanded that wildfires be extinguished as quickly as possible, even though some experts say the fires, if allowed to run their course, would ultimately have left the forests less prone to infernos.

"The fire prevention that we saw throughout the 20th century is now bearing fruit--by leading to catastrophic wildfires," said Allen Mattison, spokesman for the Sierra Club. "The attitude of the Forest Service for decades was, as soon as a forest fire was spotted, to have it out by 10 the next morning. That defied the laws of nature."

In Show Low, the call to evacuate came at 7 p.m. Saturday. In the largest evacuation of this fire season, 7,700 residents were ordered out of town after the Rodeo fire, which has burned more than 150,000 acres of forest since Tuesday, breached what authorities considered the critical point, about eight miles west of town.

For days, many residents here had been packing their cars in anticipation of the call. Within minutes, streets were gridlocked under skies that glowed with fireballs spit high into the air from the approaching fire. U.S. 60, the only highway to the Phoenix area, was closed, forcing vehicles to the northeast out of town.

Two hours later, neighboring Pinetop-Lakeside, with 3,500 residents, also was evacuated.

By 11 p.m., the fire was a couple of miles from Show Low. "Nothing is going to stop it [from reaching the city].... We will have a lot of fire in town," fire official Jim Paxon said.

A smaller fire had burned to within six miles of the Rodeo fire, and officials said they assumed the two blazes would merge by today. Fire information officer Rob Deyerberg said that then the blaze would move faster and burn more fuel, making it harder to fight. "If it merges it just gets worse."

Two years ago, new philosophies emerged about the merits of controlled burns to prevent disasters like this.

For decades, Americans listened to Smokey Bear, subscribing to the strict theory that all forest fires were bad. In 1988, when government officials let a wildfire sweep through nearly a million acres of Yellowstone National Park, the public was outraged and the incident opened the door to reconsidering the nation's fire policy. In 2000, the Clinton administration put forth a national fire plan that called for prescribed burns and forest thinning as effective fire prevention tools. But the controlled burns have been controversial.

In the summer of 2000, a controlled burn in New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument backfired disastrously. It was poorly planned, understaffed and blew out of control.

The intentionally set fire burned 43,000 acres, destroyed facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, leveled about 200 homes and fueled renewed public opposition to the practice. The government has paid more than $100 million in damages to businesses and homeowners.

So far this year, 1.3 million acres has been burned nationwide in prescribed fires, according to government statistics.

Forest planners say more timber could have been saved this year had there been more controlled fires in the past.

The 137,000-acre Hayman fire southwest of Denver exploded across lands where little had been done to thin forests. As a result, relatively benign ground fires have reached the crowns of mature trees, causing the most intense blazes.

"We've neglected the role of prescribed fires," said Jim Anderson, a planner for the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. But Anderson and others say reducing combustible material in the nation's forests to manageable levels through controlled burns now will be a daunting exercise in catching up. Part of the problem, they say, is that much of the public still is opposed to prescribed burns.

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