Towns abandoned in Arizona as 50-mile wall of flames creates the 'perfect fire'

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The Independent US

The largest wildfire in the history of Arizona raged out of control yesterday, 150 miles north-east of Phoenix, threatening half a dozen small mountain towns and forcing the evacuation of 30,000 people.

The largest wildfire in the history of Arizona raged out of control yesterday, 150 miles north-east of Phoenix, threatening half a dozen small mountain towns and forcing the evacuation of 30,000 people.

Show Low, whose 7,700 inhabitants were told to leave on Saturday, seemed a ghost town last night, its streets silent and deserted. Looming from the west, obliterating the sky, was a huge orange and black cloud.

As winds dropped, the fire's progress slowed but hopes of saving Show Low are slim. "It's abated a little but we're still in a lot of danger here," a firefighters' spokesman said. "We think it's an inevitability that the fire is going to enter Show Low."

Already the fire has burnt parts of the evacuated towns of Linden, Pinedale, Clay Springs and Heber-Overgaard, and 3,500 residents of nearby Pinetop-Lakeside left after the blaze leapt a firebreak that was being built. The conflagration is the result of two fires which began last week and converged on Sunday, forming a wall of flames 50 miles long, fanned by hot, high winds and fuelled by the parched forest, which drought has turned into a tinderbox. So far, the blaze has consumed 305,000 acres, or 480 square miles.

At Show Low, firefighters used bulldozers to build walls of earth to slow the fire. After that, they were planning to withdraw, waiting to see where the blaze struck, then trying to control it where they could.

Their task looked almost impossible. The Arizona blaze, whose two parts were unintentionally started by humans, is being described as the forest-fire equivalent of the perfect storm. "Some of us have been doing this for more than 30 years, and this is the biggest and meanest fire we've been on," one firefighter said.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, crews were fighting a 62,500-acre blaze that has destroyed 45 homes in the state's south-west corner. But a 137,000-acre fire south of Denver, which has burnt at least 133 homes, was said to be almost 70 per cent contained. About 2,200 people remained under evacuation orders, down from 8,900 last week, authorities said.

Fires so far this year have consumed 892,000 hectares (2.23 million acres). They have also destroyed an estimated 1,500 homes, barns, garages and other buildings nationwide, double the destruction in each of the past three years.

Across the West, 17 large fires were burning over nearly 722,000 acres in seven states yesterday, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Centre said.

On Sunday, 200 firefighters attended a memorial service for four colleagues killed in a van crash while heading to the fire, the latest victims of the worst fires in years at so early a stage of the season.

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