Arizona's biggest fire 80 percent contained, all residents allowed to return home

Tuesday, July 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CIBECUE, Ariz. (AP) _ The last of the people still displaced by the largest wildfire in state history were told they could return to their homes Wednesday.

Residents at an evacuation center in Payson cheered as fire information officer Tim Grier announced the news that the evacuation order was lifted for hard-hit Heber-Overgaard and nearby Forest Lakes.

The fire, which has charred 468,000 acres, was about 80 percent contained and expected to be fully contained by Sunday. The number of people working the blaze had been trimmed and many of the 30,000 evacuees had been allowed to return home.

The good news comes amid high tension between white residents and the White Mountain Apaches. A member of the tribe, Leonard Gregg, was indicted Tuesday on charges that he started one of the two wildfires that combined into the wind-driven blaze that destroyed more than 400 homes and forced more than 25,000 people to flee.

The fire has cut a wide swath through the economy of the White Mountain Apache tribe, which relies on lumber and tourists who come to gamble and hunt.

Gregg's arrest on federal charges has added to the tribe's troubles, and some members have been reluctant to make their usual trips north to the predominantly white Show Low area to shop and work.

``A lot of people are afraid to go up there because they're mad at us just because of this one idiot,'' said Travis Duryea, a neighbor of Gregg. ``We're not all bad.''

Gregg also was indicted with starting a second fire on June 18, the day the Rodeo fire broke out. That fire was put out. If convicted of both counts, he could face 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

Court documents allege Gregg, 29, a part-time firefighter, told an investigator he set the fire so he could get work on a fire crew.

Some Apaches said they feel non-Indians began turning on the tribe soon after the fire started, with the bad feelings intensifying since Gregg's arrest. Instead of running their errands in Show Low, only about 30 miles away, some have started going to Globe, 50 miles to the southwest, or making the 100-mile trek to Phoenix.

Kathy Beach said she had heard of people telling tribal members, ``Don't start any more fires.''

``Why mistreat the whole tribe when it's only one person doing it?'' asked Beach. ``Why give them our business? That's how I feel, and there's a lot of other people who feel the same way.''

Any tension would run counter to what local officials say has been growing cooperation in the area, said John Deaton, a sociology and political science instructor at Northland Pioneer College in Show Low.

Among fires elsewhere in the West:

_ Firefighters in Colorado stopped the spread of the largest wildfire in state history, which destroyed 133 homes. The 137,760-acre blaze southwest of Denver was declared fully contained 24 days after it started.

A firefighter was killed by a falling tree Tuesday while working in rugged terrain to help control a 72,935-acre wildfire north of Durango. He was at least the ninth firefighter to die on the job nationwide this season and the sixth killed in Colorado.

_ A 23,000-acre fire in northeastern Utah near the Flaming Gorge Dam was moving away from the town of Dutch John, whose 200 residents had been evacuated.

_ A 10,000-acre fire in Medicine Bow National Forest in southeast Wyoming, west of Wheatland, was threatening about 100 cabins, homes and ranch buildings. It was 20 percent contained.

_ A complex of fires in the southwestern corner of New Mexico has charred about 21,000 acres. The blaze was 25 percent contained.

_ A fire in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota burned 9,000 acres, or more than 14 square miles. Wind was expected to reach 25 mph Wednesday afternoon. The blaze was 35 percent contained.