The Heat Is Online

Fires Sweep Through 7 Western States

Crews maxed out as fires spread

MSNBC.com, June 21, 2002

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Two million acres have burned across the United States since January, more than double the 10-year average for this time of year.


The fires have spread because of a severe drought across the West — the worst for some areas since the 1930s Dust Bowl.

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June 21 — The nation’s firefighting capacity was at its limit Friday, with tired crews overextended across the West, where firefighters were battling 18 fires in seven states. The worst blaze was in Arizona, where a 6-mile-wide fire exploded overnight and threatened to merge with another fire to consume 300,000 acres


The Arizona fire has consumed 12 to 15 homes near the rural community of Pinedale, and Friday’s forecast was not good.


Gusts up to 45 mph, low humidity and temperatures in the 90s were forecast in what officials called a recipe for an inferno.


"The forest is burning like you’re pouring gasoline on it, and the wind is like taking a blowtorch to it," fire spokesman Jim Paxon said in Show Low, 10 miles east of the threatened towns. "This fire’s going to rear its ugly head again and grow."


He added: "It’s a situation that shouts, ‘Watch out!’ It raises the hair on your skin."

Some 8,000 people have fled the area, and thousands more were on alert — repeating what Colorado residents went through earlier this week when fires destroyed at least 136 homes. An additional 11,000 people in and around Show Low have been told to be ready to evacuate.

The so-called Rodeo fire, which started Tuesday near Pinedale and jumped from 85,000 acres Thursday night to 120,000 Friday morning, also damaged or destroyed 20 structures, said Paxon, citing a preliminary assessment of the fire in and around Pinedale, about 140 miles northeast of Phoenix.


"The good news is, it was not the 70 or 80 we were anticipating," Paxon said. Authorities said there had been no injuries or fatalities as crews tried to keep the fire from reaching homes.

Firefighter Alma Leithead said he had seen mobile homes that appeared to be melted and the leftover foundations of homes when he entered the fire area. "It’s horrible to see," he said.

Up to 4,000 residents were ordered to leave Pinedale and the nearby communities of Linden and Clay Springs on Wednesday. Officials also evacuated another 4,000 residents from Heber-Overgaard, a nearby community, because of another fire that broke out Thursday.
Lana Rexroat, a mother of four from Clay Springs who is expecting a child in six weeks, sobbed after hearing the blaze was close to her town.


"I want to have a home to take my baby to in six weeks," she said.
Residents of Show Low, a town of 7,700, and neighboring Pinetop-Lakeside, where 3,500 people live, were told to be ready to evacuate at an hour’s notice.

MERGE WITH SECOND FIRE?

Arizona Gov. Jane Hull told NBC’s "Today" show that 50-mph gusts were expected to fan the Rodeo fire Friday. Officials also fear the smaller blaze and the Rodeo fire, now about seven miles apart, could merge into an even larger firefront, she said.

NBC’s Chip Reid reported from Show Low that officials fear that if the two fires merged they’d create a fireline that could quickly spread across 300,000 acres.

The smaller fire, now at 7,000 acres, was started by a lost hiker to get the attention of a news helicopter, which landed and rescued her. Authorities did not immediately say whether she would be charged for setting the fire.


Some 600 firefighters are assigned to the Rodeo blaze, but Hull said that "we desperately need to get more people in here on this fire."


Some 12,000 firefighters are battling large fires across the West, and nearly half of those men and women are in Colorado, California and Nevada.

Congress provided millions more this year for firefighters but the early fire season caught officials off-guard, and many crews — a third of whom had never before fought a fire — were still in training when they were called into service.


The National Interagency Fire Center on Friday issued a "red flag" warning for northern Arizona and northwest New Mexico. That warning alerts fire crews to extreme danger brought on by low humidity, high temperatures and strong winds — ingredients that can cause fires to explode.
Dry lightning warnings were issued for Colorado.

‘WE INHERITED A MONSTER’

Authorities didn’t know how the Rodeo fire started Tuesday, when it was at just 300 acres, but noted that without lightning in the area it had to be manmade.

"This is a huge fire," Paxon said. "We inherited a monster."

The blaze was described as a "plume fire," in which winds rotate flames in a circular motion similar to a tornado before the fire falls and explodes in all directions.

Larry Humphrey, incident commander of the federal fire team in Arizona, said the fire was moving faster than "any fire I’ve ever seen in 28 years of firefighting."

"We’re having extreme fire behaviors," Humphrey said, describing 300-foot flames with temperatures of 2,000 degrees. "We’ve had to pull all the crews off the lines right now" because of the extreme danger.

Paxon said: "You can’t just say, ‘Whoa, fire!’ and it’ll stop. We’re just not going to put firefighters in there and have them compromised and have them can’t get out."
Paxon said firefighters would probably be on the scene for many weeks. "It’s sort of like eating an elephant, and we’re going to have to eat it one bite at a time," he said. "And it’s going to be quite a meal."

COLORADO FIRES

In Colorado, where firefighters have been battling huge fires over the last two weeks, a new fire erupted with 300-foot flames just two miles south of the town of South Fork, near the New Mexico border.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 residents of nearby subdivisions were evacuated Wednesday night. The blaze, which has been dubbed the Million fire, is in Rio Grande National Forest in southern Colorado.

Half of the evacuees were allowed to return home Thursday, but 15 homes had been lost to the fire, which is still out of control.

About 70 miles away, near Durango, crews battled a fire that jumped containment lines and grew by 4,000 acres to 59,000 acres Thursday. Fire officials increased the number of homes destroyed to 47. Some 400 more were threatened.

About 2,800 residents have had to flee and authorities warned the fire could mushroom across 100,000 acres.
"We’re a long way from having a handle on the fire," information officer Mark Morrow said. "We don’t want to lose homes that have already been saved once."
The fire, which has been burning since June 9, was reported to be only 25 percent contained.

NOT-GUILTY PLEA


Other crews tried to make progress against the largest fire in Colorado’s history, the 137,000-acre Hayman blaze just 40 miles south of Denver.


Fire information officer Melissa Petersen said the wildfire had burned 79 homes. Some of the 8,900 people forced to evacuate have been allowed to return.


Conditions, however, were expected to worsen soon. "This may be it because we’re going to be going into warmer and drier weather," fire information officer Ron Jablonski said of the Hayman blaze.


The suspect in the fire, U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Lynn Barton, pleaded not guilty Thursday to setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property, injuring a firefighter and using fire to commit a felony.

Barton could face up to 65 years in prison and a $1 million fine. She was ordered held in lieu of $600,000 bond, a defeat for prosecutors who had asked that she not be granted bail.
The Denver Post reported Wednesday that prosecutors were investigating the theory that she lit the blaze so she could look like a hero by putting it out.

President Bush declared the Colorado fire areas a major disaster to help with federal funding. Bush’s action makes federal funding available, possibly including disaster housing, grants and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, to help residents and businesses recover.

FIRES DOUBLE THE AVERAGE

Entire regions across the West and the Southwest are experiencing their worst fires in years.
California is dealing with five large fires, Colorado has four, Arizona has three, New Mexico and Utah each have two, Nevada and Wyoming each have one.

Two million acres have burned across the United States since January, more than double the 10-year average for this time of year.


The fire season turned deadly on Monday, when the wings snapped off an air tanker dropping retardant on a blaze in the Sierra Nevada. The plane crashed, killing all three people aboard.

The fires have spread because of a severe drought across the West — the worst for some areas since the 1930s Dust Bowl.