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Mammoth Arizona wildfires merge

Foster Klug,Associated Press
Monday 24 June 2002 00:00 BST

Two wildfires raging unchecked through paper-dry forest merged Sunday into a single blaze of about 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares) that threatened to burn into the town of Show Low, Arizona.

Before they came together, the fires had destroyed about 185 homes elsewhere in the highlands of eastern Arizona, and as many as 25,000 people had fled more than half a dozen towns, including Show Low.

Having a merged fire makes it easier to fight in one respect, said Larry Humphrey, the fire incident commander.

"Before we couldn't put people in the middle of this fire. With one perimeter it makes it a little simpler," Humphrey said.

On Sunday night, the fire remained outside Show Low, though a few spot fires had been reported on the western part of town, he said.

Officials had initially said they expected the fire to enter the town about mid-afternoon.

"We were just lucky," said Humphrey. "We ran a lot of retardant on it. It's sitting, waiting on us."

Trees could be seen exploding into flame on the western horizon, and three or four slurry bombers dipped low behind trees, making several passes. Several brown columns of smoke swirled in the air. The sun glowed deep red through the dirty cloud.

"Sometimes these fires make a big run on one day and then they rest on the next day and make another run the next. it's definitely still going to get into Show Low. There's no doubt," Humphrey said.

Of the homes destroyed, 115 burned in towns just west of Show Low. Seventy were in Heber-Overgaard, a community 55 kilometers (35 miles) west of Show Low that was overrun Saturday by the other fire.

Hundreds more were saved by firefighters, fire spokesman Jim Paxon said.

Most of Show Low was a virtual ghost town. At a Toyota dealership, all the new cars had been moved off the lot. The hardware store, the Safeway, the gas stations — all were empty.

At the Kmart and Family Dollar, RVs, pickups and cars covered the parking lot, now a safehouse of sorts for abandoned family vehicles.

Humphrey said since firefighters couldn't stop the flames from entering Show Low, their plan called for pulling back, letting the fire hit and then fighting where they could.

Firefighters assessing the town in advance of the fire were using red ribbons to mark homes that they didn't think they'd be able to save.

"We'll spend our time on the ones we can possibly save," Humphrey said. "It's a tough call, but we have to make it."

The wildfire had burned through parts of the evacuated towns of Pinedale and Clay Springs, and flames broke through a bulldozed line Saturday night and into Heber-Overgaard, an already-evacuated community of 2,700. Air tankers dropped slurry directly on homes in a last-ditch effort to save them.

The area, popular with hikers and Phoenix-area residents escaping the desert heat, is covered with pinon, juniper and pine trees made explosively dry by years of drought.

The largest fire, burning since Tuesday, was thought to be human-caused, although authorities didn't know whether it was an accident or arson. The other was started Thursday by a lost hiker signaling for help.

Across the western United States, 17 large fires were burning on 288,722 hectares (721,806 acres) in seven states on Sunday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

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