Wallow Fire becomes the largest blaze in Arizona history

06/14/2011 20:40

AZCentral:  SPRINGERVILLE - The Wallow Fire has blackened more land than the Rodeo-Chediski blaze, which was the largest wildfire in Arizona history.

The Wallow Fire has now charred more than 469,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico and is 18 percent contained, according to fire officials on Tuesday morning. Rodeo-Chediski scorched roughly 468,000 acres in Arizona in 2002.

The winds in the fire region are expected to be a bit calmer Tuesday than Monday, helping firefighters battling the blaze. The National Weather Service predicts winds will reach 15 mph. Wednesday was expected to be the same but Thursday winds could pick up again with gusts reaching 40 mph.

Although the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski fires are similar in size, firefighters have noted a key difference: Far fewer homes have been lost to the Wallow, thanks to certain preventive measures. A campaign to thin forests near White Mountain communities since Rodeo-Chediski helped limit damage, allowing firefighters to save more homes despite the grim blackening of more acreage.

Officials said 32 homes have been lost so far to the Wallow Fire. Rodeo-Chediski consumed 465 homes.

Fire officials said Monday that all Arizona communities appeared to be safe for the moment, though a threat remained for the towns of Greer, Alpine and Nutrioso, and Luna, N.M., just across the Arizona line.

Fire crews from the Pacific Northwest were working to save Luna, which faces the active eastern side of the Wallow Fire, which has burned the most acreage in the last few days. The area's conditions remained tinder dry, making the "probability of (fire) ignition 100 percent," said Jayson Coil of the Southwest Area Management Team.

Sean Johnson, spokesman for the team responsible for the eastern flank, said the lower half of the fire is most dangerous on that side, but the northeast section was not threatening.

The eastern side's rough, steep terrain laced with canyons made it difficult and dangerous for firefighters to attack flames directly.

"Our number one concern . . . is that the firefighter is protected," Johnson said.

More than 4,700 personnel are working the blaze.

Federal fire investigators on Sunday went to what they believed to be the Wallow Fire's point of ignition in search of evidence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Schneider said Monday.

"I can't talk about what they may or may not have found; they are continuing to put that together," Schneider said.

He said no arrests have been made.
A 'sigh of relief'

"My understanding is there are a number of people who were in the vicinity or area where the fire is believed to have started and investigators are trying to identify those individuals and want to interview them," he said.

Residents returning to Springerville and Eagar over the weekend and Monday were breathing a sigh of relief.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would ever grow into something this gigantic," said Mike Hill, 57, of Eagar, whose home escaped damage despite being within a quarter mile of the flames. "It just kept coming."

Hill's home benefited from last year's forest clearing.

"I was kind of against it at the time," Hill said, ruing the loss of his trees. "But that seems to have helped a lot."

Firefighters also showed off their progress in the picturesque mountain hamlet of Greer, where the inferno hugged nearby ridges and hillsides but was halted by the combination of a favorable winds and hard, persistent work by crews who hand-dug a firebreak and dropped water from a helicopter.

Still, 21 buildings were lost there - 18 residences and three cabins owned by a Presbyterian Church camp, Greer Fire Chief Mark Wade said. The summer home of retiring U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., was among those that remained undamaged.

"There is still a lot of green in Greer. Greer is not as bad as people thought it was," Wade said.

On a ridge line south-southeast of town, he said, "This was a true firestorm . . . it was very intense."

Not everyone shared good news, however.

Mark Schnepf, a Queen Creek farmer whose family has owned a cabin in Greer for 70 years, said he has known since viewing aerial news footage last week that his cabin had burned to the ground.

"It's not a human life, but because it has been in the family for so long, it's like a family member," he said.

Schnepf's grandfather, Jack, traded an old truck to the family of late Arizona Gov. Ernest McFarland for the cabin, which had a unique footprint because it featured two buildings separated by a flagstone patio. It sat at the south end of the Greer Valley, where the fire entered the area.

Wade said those who lost homes are being notified, usually through short telephone calls. Wade plans to meet with each whenever they are allowed back into Greer, to explain what happened and the measures taken by firefighters to save structures.

Schnepf said he would welcome such a meeting and expects it to give him some peace of mind. As of Monday afternoon, he had not been notified officially by fire officials of the cabin's loss. But it was not really necessary after what he saw last week.

"I was really feeling distraught Wednesday night when I thought all of Greer was lost," he said. "I just broke down and shed some tears."

Schnepf said he was thrilled that the Molly Butler Lodge and most of the rest of Greer was saved.

"It's such a blessing to the rest of us that the rest of Greer was saved," he said.

Officials said the situation in Greer remained precarious. "I don't think we're out of the woods, by any means," Wade said Monday.

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