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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Forest Service Official Delivers Update on Arizona Fires

Aired June 24, 2002 - 14:05   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, in eastern Arizona, exhausted firefighters are celebrating a bit of success. A fire line they've been working on for days outside the town of Show Low is finished. But, fire crews still expect the fire to take over the town eventually.

This is the massive wildfire that, until yesterday, was two separate fires.

CNN's Charles Molineaux is with us again, in Show Low, which now is nearly empty -- Charles.

CHARLES MOLINEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's just about nobody here, Kyra, except, of course, for the media and the firefighters here at their Camp Show Low. They have been dealing with some pretty favorable conditions over the past 24 hours as they faced a very aggressive fire. The winds died down and the temperature went down five degrees. That may not sound like much, but it can make a dramatic difference, according to the Forest Service, when it comes to how quickly we see some of these fuels, trees and underbrush, go up.

Taking advantage of that situation, the crews went out and spent a long night fighting the fire.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): With an angry red night light in the West visible throughout town, fire crews worked through the night and into this morning on the fire lines.

The Forest Service says they have now created a new six-mile fire break in a strategic canyon west of Show Low. But on several other fronts, the city remains defenseless, barring a big change in the weather.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're scrambling, trying to get ready for fire to come into Show Low. We think that's inevitable. But crews are out there, preparing those westernmost homes that are against the forest edge.

MOLINEAUX: Satellite pictures show how the Rodeo and Chedeski fires merged into one huge conflagration on Sunday. Fortunately, the Forest Service says, it happen during a period of low winds and cooler temperatures and they did not get the nightmare scenario of a high- energy/high-speed fire roaring north that they had anticipated earlier.

The Red Cross says the doors are still open at four evacuations shelters for some 30,000 people cleared out of Show Low and a dozens towns on the fire path.

Some of them have been doing excruciating detective work, searching for familiar landmarks in TV images of burning homes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From one of the news stations, we were just seeing a couple of spots that looked familiar on the ranch. But there's a couple of us in that whole area that might have a railroad box as a storage, so we don't know. But we thought it was part of our place.

MOLINEAUX: Others say they'd rather face the danger of fire, and plan to stick it out until the very, very last minute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We think that we're better off here at our homes, because we've seen on TV a lot of people over there at the shelters, and they're over there wondering what's going on over here with their homes, in their hometown. And they're unable to get information. We're at our home. We know our home is safe, and so we feel comfortable there at our home as long as we can be there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MOLINEAUX: Kyra, let's get an update on exactly what's going on at this moment. The press conference is going on with Jim Paxon with the Forest Service. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JIM PAXON, FOREST SERVICE: ... took on the Chedeski fire. Chedeski fire. Well today, we've got Kim Martin (ph) from the Great Basin in the Boise area, coming down with his team, and our sister team, Van Bateman's (ph), taking over from the rim down south to Sebaque (ph).

Martin's (ph) team will be on the southwest side of the -- the Chedeski side of the fire. Dave Daschle (ph) will take from the rim up to join with us.

Now, what does that mean? That means there's four incident organizations just like we've got here. They will each gather their own resources. Air tankers, helicopters, crews, engines, water tenders, caterers, shower units -- all the things that we have there, there will be in four camps, and that means that there will be a much closer supervision and a much more direct action on each of those quarters of the fire.

Overhead will be area command. Area command will actually allocate scarce resources between the four teams, and they will be down here in Honda (ph), I believe.

So what that means is, we're going to get a handle on this fire. We're beginning get the upper hand. Mother Nature can deal us a bunch of jokers and strange cards, but we're going to continue the determined fight to catch this fire and put it out.

The incident commander, just a little while ago, says that he's fully confident that we're not going to get a wall of flame into Show Low. I think your viewers and especially the evacuees need to know that. Maybe it will reassure them. He is also equally sure that we will have some spotting activity.

We're sitting right here and we're getting some ash fallout. It's not hot ash. It's dry and cold. But if these winds turn westerly and things happen, we'll have embers transported into Show Low and possibly Lakeside as well. Possibly even as far down as Pinetop. It depends on the winds.

But we're going to have Chief Ben Owens (ph) and the other fire chiefs' engines in place and poised. We're going to have wild land firefighters ready to take action against any fires immediately. We're going to have all the law enforcement personnel patrolling. They did pick up a couple of spots out north yesterday. So spotting is something that Mr. Jackson's also going to tell us about. How come and why for.

The smoke is limiting air ops. You know, there was a air tanker that went overhead, and I was surprised at that, because up until now, it's only been that big -- not a Sikorsky (ph), but an Erickson (ph) air-crane, the big grasshopper looking thing with a snorkel on the end of it.

We do have an injury to report. Last night, a firefighter received minor burns, was stabilized on scene, was transported to a hospital, treated and released. We're talking second and a few third- degree burns, but not serious. And I don't know the circumstances surrounding that injury -- whether they tripped and fell into a fire they were working on or -- you know, we don't know those circumstances. As I find out, I will get them to you.

You know, this fire is not only making history, but we've been seeing a few dignitaries and a few folks come through, Congressman Jeff Flake is here. He really doesn't want to talk. He's just here to support us. If you all want to talk to him, he's here and you can visit him.

We've also got the Undersecretary of the Interior, Steven Griles, and Steven, would you come on up and give us some words.

STEVEN GRILES, UNDERSECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR: Right here.

PAXON: Right here.

Hi. It's J. Steven -- S-T-E-V-E-N -- Griles -- G-R-I-L-E-S. I'm the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior.

I came out today to visit the...

MOLINEAUX: You've been watching Jim Paxon with the Forest Service giving his normal 1:00 a.m. briefing and with a couple of interesting pieces of news. First off, the news that a firefighter has been injured on the fire lines. That is significant, because this is the first time that has happened on this fire. The Forest Service has presented it as a matter of considerable pride that up until now no one has been hurt. No people in the public and nobody on the fire lines has actually sustained any injuries, except for a severe sunburn. So that's actually significant. But also significant in that it highlights the fact that they've done so well in preventing injuries so far.

Also news that a fourth national level type I incident management team will be coming to the fire. That gives you an idea of the incredible priority being assigned to fire. Usually it's very rare to see more than one type I team on a single incident. Two of them would be pretty rare. Four is virtually unheard of. But this is the top level of expertise being brought from the national level to deal with a major situation, where you could have widespread risk of injury or damage to property. That's when they send in the type I team. We have four type I teams already on this fire, which has now burn 300,000 acres and is sitting here on the outskirts of Show Low.

As you also heard, Jim Paxon mentioned that we are seeing ash fall in Show Low. The city is now full of smoke and we've got ashes falling around us, here at Camp Show Low.

Local police are on duty watching for embers that might be falling into communities and starting fires. They'll be reporting them in and then the city fire department will be going in to put them out.

So a major effort being brought to bear on this fire --Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Charles Molineaux. Thank you.

And of the 30,000 or so folks that have been evacuated from the area, most of them are staying in Red Cross shelters. Others have moved in with friends -- temporarily, they hope.

One of them is Stephanie Irwin, who's on the phone with us now.

Hello, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE IRWIN, EVACUATED RESIDENT: Hello.

PHILLIPS: Why don't you tell us where your cabin was exactly, and kind of take me back and tell me why you had to leave and where you are right now.

IRWIN: Well, actually, it is our permanent residence in Pinetop Lakeside. It's not just a cabin.

We got a phone call from my father-in-law, who's the vice-mayor of Pinetop Lakeside, about 12:30 Wednesday -- said we were on one-hour alert. And we packed up our travel trailer on Thursday morning and have been sitting helplessly since then, not knowing what to do.

Finally, about 12:30 Saturday night, some sheriff's deputies knocked on our door and said you have an hour to leave. PHILLIPS: In one hour. I mean, Stephanie, put us in your mindset? What did all of you do? I know you're married. I know you have a couple of children. And even some animals. What did you do in an hour? How did you strategize?

IRWIN: Because we had advance notice that it was probably coming our way, we had pretty well packed things up. We thought earlier Saturday evening that we might have five to eight hours, so we were going to try to leave real early Sunday morning.

When they said an hour, of course, our stomachs started churned and we got our kids back up out of bed and just started driving through the night.

PHILLIPS: What did you pack, Stephanie?

IRWIN: I'm a CPA in town, so I took my computer tower, family pictures, my daughter took her took Beanie Babies. My son took his deer mount, and obviously just as many family memories as we could.

PHILLIPS: Sure and the things that are most important to you.

IRWIN: Plus our two dogs.

PHILLIPS: Yes. Is your home -- is this a family home that passed on from generation to generation? Or when did you come into this home?

IRWIN: No. We had it built shortly after we were married 19 years ago.

PHILLIPS: Oh, boy. So, you've been there 19 years.

IRWIN: 19 years.

PHILLIPS: So this is the home where you kids have grown up.

IRWIN: Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: And you had how long to evacuate? They came to door and said one hour and you've got to go?

IRWIN: That's correct.

PHILLIPS: And do you know the condition of your home now or how close the fire is to your home?

IRWIN: Yes. We spoke with our neighbor this morning, who is with the Navajo County Sheriff's Office, and she said our home is absolutely fine for now. And we are continuing to be very hopeful. We're encouraged by the news that Jim Paxon is giving us right now, that says they feel better. But we've heard that before, too.

So, we're cautiously optimistic.

PHILLIPS: Stephanie, how have you and the kids, and your husband, how have you had to just completely rearrange your life? I mean, put it into perspective here, to all of us who are no where near you or near these fires. Give us kind of a detailed account of what -- how this has just affected the family.

IRWIN: Well, we're over here. We're fortunate that we have friends that manage a ranch for the Arizona Game and Fish. We have other family with us. Lots of friends. We all have our animals, and we're just really sticking together.

I think we probably feel very helpless, that there's nothing we can do. It's completely out of our control. Saying lots of prayers, and I really don't know what else to tell you.

PHILLIPS: Well, as a mom, what are you telling your kids, Stephanie?

IRWIN: That we're going to be OK. We do have family that have said we can come down and stay in with them in Phoenix, but we really want to stay close to home. They've lived here their whole lives and all their friends are here. They're concerned that we may have to move, just to survive financially. That's a long shot. We're confident we're going to be fine.

PHILLIPS: Have you ever experienced anything like this before?

IRWIN: Never.

PHILLIPS: So this is a first?

IRWIN: It's beyond anything you could even imagine.

PHILLIPS: Well, Stephanie, your strength is admirable, and we wish you and your family the best, absolutely.

IRWIN: Thank you very much.

PHILLIPS: Thank you, Stephanie Irwin.

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