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Residents Begin Touring Homes Lost to Wildfire

Arizona: Show Low now appears in the clear, and evacuees may return within days. But the blaze now threatens 600 more residences nearby.

June 29, 2002|From Associated Press

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — Some people who lost their homes in a huge wildfire toured the ashes and rubble for the first time Friday as the blaze crept up rugged terrain toward another group of more than 600 homes.

Lana Page from Tucson saw the ashes of her new two-story log cabin, a vacation home near Show Low that she and her husband had spent three years building. The couple had stayed one weekend there.

"We got to eat in it for the first time," Page said, choking up. "It was an accomplished dream. It's hard to see your dreams go up in smoke so fast."

Heading west, the road from Show Low to the hard-hit Heber and Overgaard communities was marked by strips of road turned copper-red from fire retardant. The landscape showed black skeletons of pine trees, soot-covered wedding china and a charred saguaro cactus sculpture made of beer and pop cans. Scarred metal, springs and melted tires were all that remained of a Volvo.

"This thing was rockin' and rollin' when it came through here," fire information officer Dick Fleischman said of the fire, which charred hundreds of homes and vast stands of timber. "This place never had a chance."

Farther west, the fire jumped a containment line and inched its way toward the southern edge of Forest Lakes Estates, an evacuated subdivision of pine-surrounded homes 40 miles west of Show Low. Tankers buzzed overhead, dropping thousands of gallons of retardant on the northwestern flank of the 417,000-acre blaze.

The fire spotted across Arizona Highway 260 into the subdivision, but crews put them out, fire information officer David Killebrew said.

The fire was about a mile from the subdivision Friday afternoon, and gray smoke spiraled thousands of feet into the sky as the flames spread. It reached the top of a plateau called the Mogollon Rim.

"I'm very concerned," said Tim Grier, who owns Forest Lakes Touring Center and Cabins. "I've been there for 22 years. We were optimistic until [Thursday], when the fire activity picked up."

After several days of favorable weather, the humidity dropped and winds picked up Friday. Forest Lakes Estates sits on a plateau above steep canyons. Firefighters carved a line in one of those canyons, but it didn't hold.

About 500 firefighters were in Forest Lakes to put out any flames started by embers from the advancing firestorm, officials said.

Other crews made their stand along a pair of roads, including Arizona 260. If the fire jumps the highway, it would spread into thick stands of ponderosa pine that stretch for 30 to 40 miles.

"We all knew the fire season was going to be bad," Gov. Jane Dee Hull told evacuees in Payson. "I don't think anybody thought it was going to be this bad."

In little more than a week, the largest fire in Arizona history has destroyed at least 423 homes, making it one of the most destructive ever in the West. It has forced about 30,000 evacuations in nine communities and left twisted, melted skeletons of homes in its wake.

The fire is just 10% contained, and officials say 350 miles of fire line will be needed to encircle the blaze.

The abandoned town of Show Low is seemingly out of danger, and its 7,700 residents hope to return in a few days. Those who lost their homes in hard-hit communities west of Forest Lakes--Heber, Overgaard and others--were to get a first look at their loss in van tours Friday and today.

Iwana Colley, 75, said each day she is away from her Overgaard home grows more difficult.

"The waiting is terrible, and my nerves are right at the breaking point," she said. "I'd like to go home, but I want it to be safe."

Hull, who owns a cabin in the evacuated town of Pinetop-Lakeside, toured that area by air Friday. "I thank you for being the spirit of the White Mountains," she told the evacuees. "You live up here because you love it, but the strength it takes to live up in the mountains sometimes is what we're seeing now."

Of 19 large fires in the Lower 48 states this year, eight were in Colorado. Fire officials there reported good news: The 137,000-acre Hayman fire, the largest in state history, is expected to be fully contained Sunday.

Near Durango, Colo., a 71,000-acre fire remained only 30% contained after destroying at least 57 homes and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.

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