`Watch out' _ fires gobble up homes in Arizona, weather forecast worsens

Friday, June 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SHOW LOW, Ariz. (AP) _ Fanned by blowtorch winds, two explosive wildfires took double-barreled aim at Arizona mountain towns Friday as firefighters desperately cleared brush and doused homes with flame-retardant foam.

The frantic work was being done in Clay Springs and Pinedale, where the 120,000-acre Rodeo fire had already destroyed at least a dozen homes. Officials feared the blaze would merge with a 5,000-acre fire farther west, creating an even bigger challenge for already overwhelmed firefighters.

Gusts up to 45 mph, low humidity and temperatures in the 90s were forecast in what officials called a recipe for an inferno.

``The forest is burning like you're pouring gasoline on it, and the wind is like taking a blowtorch to it,'' fire spokesman Jim Paxon said in Show Low, 10 miles east of the threatened towns. ``This fire's going to rear its ugly head again and grow.''

He added: ``It's a situation that shouts, `Watch out!' It raises the hair on your skin.''

Some 8,000 people have been evacuated from Pinedale, Clay Springs, Linden and a community farther west since Wednesday. An additional 11,000 people in and around Show Low were told to be ready to evacuate.

On the first day of summer, the wildfire situation across the West already appeared desperate, in large part because of severe drought. The government's National Interagency Fire Center said 1.99 million acres have burned across the country so far this year _ double the 10-year average _ and fire officials said their resources were stretched thin.

In Colorado, three wildfires have burned 201,000 acres and destroyed at least 141 homes. Thousands of people remained out of their homes.

The Rodeo fire began Tuesday and exploded from 1,200 acres Wednesday to 120,000 early Friday, racing through bone-dry stands of pine, juniper and pinon trees right to the edge of Clay Springs and Linden.

Shasta Perkins fled Linden with her sister, brother and parents. They have been holed up since Wednesday in Show Low, awaiting word about their home and whether they may be forced to leave once more.

``You get upset and then you hear a bit of good news and you're joyful for that,'' she said. ``Then you hear something else, and it brings you back down.''

``I never thought of losing anything to fire,'' said her grandfather, Pete Peterson, who has lived in the area for 80 years. ``Now you realize we should take northern Arizona right off the map. How are you going to sell black land?''

As they spoke, fire crews dug lines around a canyon southwest of Show Low to try to stop the blaze from reaching the town, which serves as the commercial hub of the area 125 miles northeast of Phoenix.

Authorities hoped the Rodeo fire would not merge with the second fire near Heber-Overgaard. That blaze has already forced 4,000 people out of their homes in Heber-Overgaard and Aripine, and crews were trying to stop its spread to the south and west _ toward the Rodeo fire, eight miles away.

The second fire was started by a lost hiker signaling for help. The first also was thought to be manmade, though authorities did not know whether it was an accident or arson.

The fires here have rattled nerves across a normally tranquil region known for its mountains and mild weather. Nestled against the White Mountains, the area is a major draw for hikers and campers and serves as a summer getaway for city dwellers escaping the heat in Phoenix.

In southwestern Colorado, wind pushed a fire northeast of Durango to 58,000 acres. Fire officials said it burned 14 more homes, bringing the total estimated lost to 47. More than 1,760 homes have been evacuated.

About 70 miles away, another fire grew to 6,000 acres and destroyed 11 homes near the community of South Fork.

Colorado's biggest fire, the 137,000-acre blaze southwest of Denver, was relatively quiet. It has forced 8,900 people from their homes since it began June 8 and destroyed at least 79 homes.

In Arizona, the extent of the damage in Pinedale was not immediately known and officials hoped to get a better look Friday. Firefighter Alma Leithead said he had seen mobile homes that appeared to be melted and the foundations of homes.

``It's horrible to see,'' he said.