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Ariz. Firefighters Fight Two Blazes

June 22, 2002

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SHOW LOW, Ariz. (AP) _ One of the worst wildfires in state history and a second blaze threatened to merge Saturday as the wind-blown flames tested an already overwhelmed fire team trying to protect pine-studded enclaves in the mountains of eastern Arizona.

The two fires, just six miles apart, already had forced the evacuation of about 8,000 people.

With an improved weather forecast, hundreds of firefighters worked to protect homes in the forest on Saturday and firm up a line between the biggest fire and Show Low, a city of 7,700.

``The winds are a lot more favorable today,″ said Dorman McGann, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. Meteorologists expected gusts of 12 to 20 mph on Saturday, down from 40 to 45 mph on Friday.

The larger of the two fires had exploded to 128,000 acres by late Friday _ just four days after it started. At least 12 homes and 20 other smaller structures were destroyed in the Pinedale community near Show Low, 125 miles northeast of Phoenix.

But firefighters took a stand by digging a fire line that protected the nearby town of Linden. They also worked to bulldoze a line stretching nine miles south from Linden to protect Show Low from the fire’s creeping right flank. If the fire crosses that line, eight miles outside of Show low, the city and neighboring Pinetop-Lakeside, with 3,500 residents, would be evacuated.

Up to 4,000 people were evacuated from Pinedale, Clay Springs and Linden, and an additional 11,000 residents of Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside were preparing to evacuate if necessary.

The second fire grew to about 20,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 4,000 people from Heber-Overgaard and Aripine.

McGann said the fires could merge as early as late Saturday.

``A lot of it depends on the weather. If the winds pick up, it could happen sooner. If they stay down, it could take long. But it is going to happen. It’s just a matter of time,″ McGann said.

The infernos rattled nerves across a region known for tranquil mountains and mild weather. Nestled in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, the area is a major draw for hikers and campers and is a summer getaway for Phoenix-area residents trying to escape the heat.

In Colorado, meanwhile, four firefighters died when a van from La Grande, Ore., swerved on Interstate 70 and rolled four times. The van was part of an eight-vehicle convoy headed to a 137,000-acre wildfire southwest of Denver, the largest in Colorado history.

Cooler weather, including some rain, allowed crews to extend containment lines around 60 percent of the Denver-area fire. But fire information officer Tim Evans said he expected the work to be put to the test by Saturday’s warmer, drier weather.

Firefighters discovered more houses that had been destroyed, boosting the total to 114. About 420 other buildings were also destroyed.

Arizona fire crews planned to continue digging lines near a canyon southwest of Show Low on Saturday in an attempt to stop the blaze from reaching the town, the commercial hub of the area. After widening the lines with bulldozers, they planned to set a backfire to remove fuel from the fire’s path.

About 100 homeowners in Linden and Clay Springs refused to evacuate, fire spokesman Jim Paxon said in Show Low, 10 miles east of the threatened towns.

Paxon warned the residents that they could become trapped if the blaze invaded their communities. No one had been reported missing Friday night.

``Mother Nature is still running things but we’re getting even with her,″ said Paxon.

Gov. Jane Hull asked President Bush to declare an emergency, which would allow the federal government to provide money to help cover the costs of damage caused by the fires.

The second fire was begun by a lost hiker signaling for help. The first also was thought to be manmade, although authorities didn’t know whether it was an accident or arson.

In California, a 1,460-acre blaze in the Tejon Pass about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles was contained and a 113-acre fire in the Angeles National Forest’s Big Tujunga Canyon was 90 percent contained. In the San Bernardino National Forest 50 miles east of Los Angeles, an arson-caused fire that burned across 6,816 acres was 95 percent contained.

Elsewhere, rain fell Saturday on a 4,510-acre wildfire that broke out a week ago in north-central New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristos range. The fire, started by lightning, was 15 percent contained, fire information officer Jean Withnell said.

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On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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