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Fire Crews Stall Ariz. Blaze Near Vacated Town

THE NATION

Disaster: President Bush acts to make federal relief funds available to those affected. No edge of the 375,000-plus-acre blaze is contained.

June 26, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — Firefighters Tuesday successfully staved off--at least for now--the massive wildfire that was threatening this mountain community, setting a series of back burns to stop flames approaching from the west and south.

Crews burned underbrush beneath towering ponderosa pines, robbing oncoming flames of fuel. The optimistic turn occurred the same day that President Bush flew over the blaze, which has charred more than 375,000 acres.

The efforts on the west side of town were nothing short of a last stand because the blaze--the largest in the state's history--had crept to within a half-mile of the edge of town. Several small spot fires ignited by blowing cinders were quickly extinguished in the city, but no homes were damaged.

And 10 miles south of town, hotshot crews burned a 13-mile firebreak a half-mile wide that "basically thwarted" the oncoming flames, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Paul Schmidtke said.

Had that firebreak failed--and officials had given it a 50% chance earlier in the day--flames could have followed several canyons leading into the city of 7,700.

President Bush viewed the charred region from the air Tuesday en route to nearby Eagar, where he shook hands with grimy firefighters before addressing several hundred evacuees in a high school auditorium.

"We're kind of used to big fires out West," Bush said, "but this is the biggest of all big fires."

He said he had declared the week-old fire a national disaster, freeing federal funds for temporary and long-term housing, business recovery and counseling needs.

"I want you to know that a lot of people in our country are pulling for you. They understand the suffering that families are going through because of worry about your most precious possession, your home," he said. "They understand that a lot of you are living in tents when you'd rather be in your own bed. They cry for you, and they hurt for you. And I'm here to say on behalf of the American people, God bless you.

"Hang in there, you brave and great people."

About 30,000 people in Show Low and neighboring communities have been evacuated, and the fire devastated some of the smaller towns, including Heber and Overgaard. By Tuesday evening, the two-headed fire had burned 586 square miles, an area larger than Los Angeles, and destroyed at least 350 homes, including entire mobile home parks. Fire officials said no edge of the fire had been contained.

Given the size of the blaze, firefighting efforts have been divided among four command centers. Along the fire's 180-mile perimeter, about 10,000 homes remain threatened.

Resources continued to pour into the region, and now include 300 hotshot crew members specially trained in setting backfires and more than 100 fire engines.

The only injury to date: a firefighter who sustained burns on an arm and was treated and released from a local hospital.

Across the U.S., 20 large fires are burning in nine states. More than 2.5 million acres have burned this year, more than twice the 10-year average burned to date.

Rain fell on the Hayman fire southwest of Denver, where crews had encircled 70% of the 137,000-acre blaze, which just days ago was the nation's most threatening fire.

In southwestern Colorado, a new fire between Durango and Silverton erupted Tuesday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of more than 90 homes. It burned just two miles west of the Missionary Ridge fire, which had grown to 67,000 acres, officials said. That fire made a threatening run after midnight Monday, and residents fled 45 homes before it was stopped by backfires. It is now 30% contained.

The fire here started as two separate blazes. The Rodeo fire was discovered June 18 on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Investigators said it was apparently human-caused, but the exact reason is unknown. Two days later, a lost hiker shot a flare, igniting the Chediski fire several miles to the west of the Rodeo blaze. The two fires merged Sunday.

Together, they have destroyed more homes than the notorious Los Alamos fire in New Mexico in 2000, when a controlled burn blew out of control, destroying more than 220 homes.

This season's fires have stoked debate about the government's changing philosophy over whether prescribed burns are necessary to reduce the underbrush and smaller trees that serve as kindling, igniting the crowns of larger trees that otherwise withstand ground fires.

"When you have areas of prescribed burns, you don't get the raging wildfires you're getting here," said Jim Paxon, the U.S. Forest Service chief spokesman here. "We're going to see a lot more of these."

The federal government changed its policy in 2000, embracing controlled burns as a way to reduce forest underbrush. But because of the extended drought, complaints from residents that the smoke is irritating and the cost of planning and executing the fires, many forest supervisors have been loath to order them.

Bush made a glancing reference to the controversy Tuesday.

"Listen, we've got a lot of work to do to make sure the Forest Service has got wise forest policy," he said to applause."

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