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Arizona Town in Path of Wildfire

Disaster: Residents of Show Low flee the three-mile wall of flames. It has already claimed 185 homes; more losses are expected.

June 24, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — A wall of flames that turned the night sky a muddy orange was burning within two miles of this evacuated city late Sunday, threatening thousands of homes as firefighters worked furiously to hold it at bay.

A concentrated aerial attack late in the day--coupled with firebreaks formed by bulldozers and backfires--helped slow the fire's march toward town. "But this is no time to be complacent," warned U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Robinson.

Some of the more than 1,000 firefighters here were prepared to retreat from the front lines into town in order to try to save structures. Police, firefighters and National Guard troops patrolled the streets as evening darkness arrived early, the sun blocked by towering plumes of smoke.

About 30,000 people had fled Show Low and surrounding towns ahead of the Rodeo fire, which displayed explosive behavior that continued to stun veteran firefighters. "This fire has been so unbelievably unpredictable," said Show Low Fire Chief Ben Owens as he braced to protect his city.

More than 700,000 acres across the drought-stricken West already have gone up in flames; there are now 17 active large fires burning nationwide, including five that started Sunday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The blaze outside Show Low is now the largest in the country in a week-old season that to date has seen twice the normal amount of acreage burned. The fire started Tuesday afternoon and had grown to more than 200,000 acres by Sunday, dwarfing the devastating Hayman fire southwest of Denver.

A companion blaze, known as the Chediski fire, was started Thursday when a lost hiker shot off a flare and had burned more than 94,000 acres; the two blazes merged as one by Sunday night, fire officials said.

Even before the three-mile-wide wall of flames had reached this city of 7,700, 185 homes in outlying areas had been destroyed. Firefighters took comfort in having saved more than 1,800 others, in part because aerial tankers were able to dump retardant even as fires were licking at the homes.

As the flames crawled toward Show Low, situated at an elevation of 6,500 feet in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, an evacuation order had left the town all but abandoned.

On a typical Sunday afternoon, as the lowlands of Phoenix and Tucson percolate in the summer heat, Show Low would be bustling with vacationers. They come here to hunt, fish, play golf or hike in the forest. The city has no real downtown, so visitors fill the restaurants and motels along Deuce of Clubs--the main drag. (The deuce of clubs is the card that determined which of two settlers--competing in a poker game called "show low"--would win the right to run the town.)

But on this Sunday, the public swimming pool was closed. So was the Ace Hardware store, the Sonic drive-in restaurant, the feed stores and sports shops. The Kmart and Safeway were closed too, their parking lots occupied by scores of vehicles that residents apparently believed were safer there than in their garages.

Two car dealerships had emptied their lots of new vehicles.

The sense of inevitability, and resignation, was everywhere.

Owens said his department had surveyed the structures in town to determine which ones might be saved--and which ones would be allowed to burn--when the flames and firebrands blow into town. The doomed ones had been given red flags.

"We can't set a firetruck at every house," the chief said. "Some homes we're going to lose that aren't defensible. And if we're overrun, we'll pull out."

About 125 fire engines would be patrolling the town by the time the flames arrive--most of them pulled in from firefighting duties in outlying communities.

Owens knew the city faced a grim night, and grew teary at the thought of what he would find when the smoke clears. "My biggest fear is losing my forest, losing my city. We're not quitting. We're not going to give up."

He said his own home and his daughter's house in nearby Linden already may have been destroyed. "We don't know if we have a place to live when this is over," he said.

The city's fire personnel, trained in fighting both structural and wild-land blazes, were manning outposts in the wooded neighborhoods that were the first to face the flames. The Phoenix Fire Department had dispatched about 20 engines in preparation to fight house fires.

"We won't be able to stop the fire. We'll have to let it blow over us, and go back in and salvage what we can," Phoenix fireman Alex Sandoval said earlier in the day.

His partner, Michael Chacon, said that he took comfort in instructions given during the morning briefing--that no one should risk their lives to save a structure. "We were told that everyone's going to go home when this is over," he said. "Nobody's going to get hurt. Houses can be replaced."

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