Arizona fire crews ready to shift some efforts away from evacuated mountain town

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SHOW LOW, Ariz. (AP) _ Firefighters are ready to shift some of their emphasis in battling a monster wildfire now that this mountain community seems closer to safety.

Crews who were helping secure Show Low will be moved to other fronts on the opposite side of the 417,000-acre blaze, where the fire slipped into rugged canyon terrain south of a small community Thursday.

In Show Low, the fire ``is really shut down,'' said fire spokesman Jim Paxon. ``It's really cooled down.''

The fire, which has destroyed at least 423 homes, was 10 percent contained.

Lines were secured along 26 miles of the fire's perimeter. Officials estimate they will need about 350 miles of fire line to fully encircle the blaze.

``On this fire we're going to hold on to anything we can get,'' said Capt. John Carothers, a firefighter with a California-based crew.

Paxon said officials are moving rapidly toward allowing some of the 30,000 people who have been evacuated back into Show Low and some neighboring communities.

The news wasn't as good on the other side of the fire, where flames began spreading into rugged terrain below the community of Forest Lakes, about 40 miles west of Show Low.

Firefighters used bulldozers to carve a line and planes dropped slurry to keep the flames from spreading toward the community, which has at least 600 homes. It remained about 3 1/2 miles from Forest Lakes.

``You need to keep your fingers crossed that we're going to pull this off,'' Kim Martin, the incident commander overseeing the western edge, told residents at an evacuation shelter in Payson. ``All bets are off right now. We've got a lot of country, a lot of timber, a lot of fuel and a lot of heat.''

The people of Show Low, population 7,700, Pinetop-Lakeside and Hon-Dah will be the first to return home, possibly in just a few days. It could be another week after that before residents are allowed back in the hardest-hit areas, including Heber-Overgaard, where scores of houses are blackened, twisted ruins.

Hazardous materials crews, along with utility and natural gas workers, must examine each home site to make sure it is safe. Some of those who lost their homes will get their first look at the damage in a tour Saturday.

Many evacuees don't know if their homes are still standing, let alone when they might be allowed to return.

``Is it going to be a month? Do we get back tomorrow? That's the part that's hard,'' said Nan Pociask, who fled her home in Heber-Overgaard, 35 miles west of Show Low, a week ago.

Videotape shot from the air around Linden, just west of Show Low, showed large homes reduced to white ash and rubble. Fireplace chimneys were all that were standing in what once were picturesque homes nestled in thick stands of big trees. In an RV resort near Overgaard, flames destroyed an estimated 168 homes.

In San Bernardino, Calif., firefighters kept watch over a blaze that has consumed more than 6,200 acres of dry brush and forced dozens of residents from their homes.

The fire, which has destroyed three homes, was 30 percent contained late Thursday as the erratic winds that had pushed it out of control for more than a day finally subsided.

The blaze was started by a car that burst into flames on the northbound side of Interstate 15 on Wednesday afternoon.

In Colorado, A wildfire burning north of Durango grew to nearly 71,000 acres and remained only 30 percent contained. It has destroyed about 57 homes and 600 others were threatened.