- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

SHOW LOW, Ariz. (AP) An explosive 500-square-mile wildfire created from the convergence of two blazes burned practically to the doorstep of this evacuated mountain town yesterday as ash rained down in an eerie shower on crews desperately fighting to hold back the flames.

The largest fire in Arizona history burned to within a mile of this town of 7,700 by midday. It already had destroyed at least 329 houses and 16 businesses, most of them in Heber-Overgaard, a community 35 miles west of Show Low that was overtaken Saturday.

Firefighters in Show Low face two dire scenarios, depending on the wind: A wall of flame could overrun the town, or drifting embers could start smaller fires.

"There's still a tremendous risk of fire jumping into Show Low," fire spokesman Jim Paxon said.

President Bush planned to tour the area today.

Brown smoke spiraled into a hazy, gray sky yesterday and the sun cast a dull orange glow. Ash piled into gutters and onto cars. In neighborhoods nearest the fire, many homes with too much underbrush or wood shingles were marked with red flags to show there was no use trying to save them.

"I think most of our businesses and homes are going to be saved. You have to think that way; otherwise, you'll be in trouble," said evacuated Show Low resident Mari Corella.

Outside the wood-shingled home of Becky and Dany Seymour, a sprinkler system sprayed the lawn as firefighting helicopters dipped giant buckets into a nearby lake. The Seymours had packed a trailer and their vehicles were ready to go.

"If we see flames, we'll go, but we don't know where we would go," Mrs. Seymour said.

In Colorado, crews fought a 63,000-acre blaze that had destroyed 45 homes near Durango. The 137,000-acre fire south of Denver that has destroyed at least 133 homes was reported 69 percent contained. About 2,200 people remained under evacuation orders, down from 8,900 last week.

A firefighter who was injured last week in a van crash while en route to that blaze died yesterday, bringing the death toll to five.

Bartholomew Bailey, 20, of Corvallis, Ore., had been in critical condition since the accident on Friday.

Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull on Sunday said the failure to clean out dry, overgrown forests because of environmentalists' opposition helped create the conditions that allowed the fire to grow so fast so quickly.

"I've been here 40 years, and I've never seen the health of this forest so bad," the Republican governor said Sunday. "The word just does not seem to get back to the environmentalists and the courts who keep us from cleaning up the forests."

Environmentalists agreed with Mrs. Hull on what should have been done to prevent this fire's severity, but not on whom she was blaming.

Environmental groups opposed thinning forests when it involved cutting down large trees, the groups said, not when it involved intentional burns or removing smaller trees to eliminate dense underbrush.

The blaze in dense pine forest on the edge of eastern Arizona's White Mountains had charred about 331,000 acres or 517 square miles, an area bigger than Los Angeles since it began as two fires last week. The fires merged on Sunday.

About 30,000 people have fled more than a half-dozen towns, including Show Low, 125 miles northeast of Phoenix. It was evacuated Saturday.

Hoping to at least blunt the fire's force, crews fortified a line bulldozed at a canyon just west of Show Low and set backfires to remove fuel from the wildfire's path.

"That's where the big concern is today: reducing the sheer force of this fire," said fire analyst Bill Jackson. "We're feeling a lot better about it."

Show Low's economy centers on tourism and recreation, along with forest products. The town got its name when two 19th-century pioneers decided there was not enough room for both of them. They agreed to let a game of cards decide who was to move, with one telling the other, "If you can show low, you win."

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