Related topics

Los Alamos, Arizona Fires Compared

June 25, 2002

%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:DXX104-062502; AUDIO:%)

PHOENIX (AP) _ Two years ago, a fire set by the National Park Service raged out of control for two months in New Mexico, blackening thousands of acres and leaving hundreds of families homeless.

Larry Humphrey was there. Now, he’s helping fight the largest fire in Arizona history.

``I’ve been doing this 29 years. This is the worst fire I’ve been on and our team was the first on the scene at Los Alamos,″ said Humphrey, a fire incident commander.

While firefighters say the Arizona fire is worse than anything they faced at Los Alamos, N.M., in May 2000, fire experts are more reluctant to make such comparisons.

``I guess it’s a matter of opinion on what’s actually worse,″ Carl Gossard, a fire expert with the government’s National Interagency Fire Center, said Tuesday.

``I’m sure to the people of Show Low, this one is far worse than the one that hit Los Alamos,″ Gossard said. ``It gets to a point where it doesn’t really matter which is worse, they’re both catastrophic to the people that were impacted by them.″

As of Tuesday, 30,000 people had been evacuated as the fire blackened more than 350,000 acres and destroyed more than 390 homes in Arizona. Hundreds more homes and businesses remain in danger.

New Mexico’s Cerro Grande Fire _ named for the peak where the park service began burning brush on May 4, 2000 _ destroyed 235 structures and left more than 350 families with no place to live.

About 18,000 residents of Los Alamos and nearby White Rock were evacuated. More than 43,000 acres were burned, including parts of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Superlatives like ``worst″ or ``most destructive″ are hard to apply depending on what’s being measured _ be it the human toll or the environmental aftermath, said Stephen Pyne, an environmental historian at Arizona State University.

``I don’t want to downplay the fire. For Arizona, this is a 1,000-year fire,″ Pyne said. ``This is a huge, horrific fire, it’s off the scale for Arizona. But if you’re talking about world-class fires, we’ve got a long way to go and I hope we don’t get there.″

Gossard said years of drought, low humidity and a forest full of tinder-dry fuel have made the situation in Arizona unique and especially dangerous.

``Fire hasn’t visited those forests in a long time. It just created fire behavior that they hadn’t seen before,″ Gossard said. ``It just was growing so fast that you couldn’t put people in front of it.″

Unlike Los Alamos, fire spokesman Jim Paxon said, crews in Arizona at least have been able to save homes.

``We’ve saved many more homes than we’ve lost. We couldn’t say that at Los Alamos,″ Paxon said.

There have been no deaths in either fire.

In the annals of U.S. wildfire history, Gossard said, none can compare to the ``The Big Blowup″ of August 1910, a behemoth fire that burned 3 million acres in two days and killed 85 people in Washington, Idaho and Montana.

``That was one of those watershed events that affected how we viewed fire,″ he said. ``That shaped our view of fires in the forests from then on.″


On the Net:

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

Update hourly