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Arizona firefighters battle wall of fire

'It's only going to get bigger,' fire official says

A house in the evacuated area near Show Low, Arizona burns to the ground Sunday.
A house in the evacuated area near Show Low, Arizona burns to the ground Sunday.  

SHOW LOW, Arizona (CNN) -- Firefighters faced a daunting 50-mile-wide fire line Sunday as they battled monster blazes that swept through a half-dozen towns and threatened the city of Show Low, Arizona, with a frightening wall of flames shooting 200 to 300 feet into the sky.

Officials said firefighters would be unable to keep the rampaging Rodeo fire away from Show Low on its relentless eastward march.

Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler was not immune to the approaching fire, telling reporters at an afternoon news conference that he was "probably one of the people who by the end of the day won't have a home."

At the same briefing, Arizona Gov. Jane Hull said she expected President Bush to declare the area a federal disaster area, freeing up relief funds for residents.

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"I cannot tell you how severe this fire is," she said. "It is not in control. The prime message that I have right now is that the fact that there are friends of mine, of yours, who are losing their homes."

Hull and U.S. Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth, visiting the site, said the devastating fire should be a wake-up call to environmentalists and governments to change the way they manage the nation's forests.

"Mother Nature right now is saying to Arizona and saying to the West and hopefully to Congress that we have got to clean up these forests," Hull said. "Nature did it on a regular basis before people came out here. ... Clean forests are the way we've got to go."

"There is a choice," Bosworth said. "We don't have to have this kind of fire. We have to put active management on the land -- thinning the forest, getting (proscribed) fire back into the ecosystems, ... spending less money on paperwork, and more on getting people out in the field."

Two fires ravaged eastern Arizona's Mogollon Rim, forcing 25,000 people to flee their homes. The Rodeo and Chediski fires were three-quarters of a mile apart Sunday afternoon, officials said, and would intensify if they merge.

"It can grow two, three, four times what it is presently," fire information Jim Paxon said. "This fire is not over. It is out of control. If it's 300,000 acres now, it's only going to get bigger."

Paxon said nearly 200 homes had been lost in the Rodeo and Chediski fires, but nearly 2,000 homes had been saved.

Even the firefighters' command center at Show Low High School was in the path of the fire, although officials said the camp site's open space would likely prevent flames from "fireballing through."

"We are in a safe zone," Paxon assured reporters at the fire camp. "If we get a bunch of embers flying around, we are in a safe zone just like we put firefighters in. We'll put you in a building and get you some clean air and we'll watch the fire roll by."

Paxon admitted that the Rodeo and Chediski fires were winning battle after battle.

"We got beat up pretty hard yesterday and the day before and we're gonna get beat up again today fighting this dragon that's reared its ugly head," he said.

The cost of battling the blaze was approaching $1 million a day, Paxon said.

Pinedale, Clay Springs, Linden, Heber, Overgaard, Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside and Hon Dah had been evacuated by Sunday afternoon, he said.

The fires have left vast areas of devastation in their wake.
The fires have left vast areas of devastation in their wake.  

"If the fire burns farther to the east or burns west past Heber there are other communities that will be threatened," he said.

"This fire won't be stopped until it runs out of fuel or it rains and it quenches it," a weary Paxon said earlier in the day. He said that fire inside a city, while burning with less intensity than wildfires, was no less dangerous.

"It'll be less active, less intense than it was out there in the forest area," he said. "But we'll have a tremendous spotting influence. If an ember hits on a house or a woodpile, then that's going to burn."

Paxon added that a city does not make an efficient fireline.

"It's going to burn right through it," he said.

Paxon said slurry drops -- the aerial bucket brigade that dumps flame retardant on fires in the wild -- also would be deployed inside the city.

Firefighters have been able to return to towns behind the fireline, where they were battling remnants of the blaze and assessing the damage.

But Paxon said the 1,400-plus firefighters on the job battling both Rodeo and Chediski -- which burned through the towns of Heber and Overgaard on Saturday night -- had "saved more homes than we lost."

Earlier, Hull called the Rodeo fire Arizona's worst ever, fueled by dry Ponderosa pine and brush, 40-mph winds and temperatures in the 90s.

Officials had no word on what caused the Rodeo blaze. They said the Chediski fire was started by an injured hiker who was trying to catch the attention of a helicopter flying overhead.




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