PHOENIX – Firefighters have gained greater control over two wildfires that reduced more than half a million acres (200,000 hectares) of forest across two states toblackened wasteland, destroying 500 structures and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. In Arizona, residents who were evacuated when the Rodeo fire racedtoward their communities were allowed to return home, as fire crews took advantage of a shift in winds and cooler temperatures to harness much of the the 464,000-acre(188,000-hectare) blaze.
A 29-year-old contract firefighter, who allegedly started the blaze in order to get seasonal work, was charged with two counts of arson and remained behind bars pending ahearing scheduled for Wednesday. It was the second time that a firefighter was charged with setting a major blaze in the bone-dry timberland of the American West at theonset of what officials fear could be one of the worst fire seasons ever. The small towns of Show Low and Forest Lakes, Arizona, which were threatened by immolation in the worstfire in state history, were considered out of danger, though residents of Forest Lakes were still barred from returning home. “The entire fire is winding down,” firespokeswoman Amanda Kuenzi said of the blaze. “We’ve got really favorable weather conditions today. The winds are out of the north, which is keeping the fire blowingback in on itself.” “It’s still a perilous situation out there because there is always the chance of spot fires, but right now there’s nothing that really has us concerned,” Kuenzi said.
FIRE CREW MEMBER CHARGED
Leonard Gregg, 29, who works as a fire crew member for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, allegedly set two fires, one of which grew into the huge Rodeo fire that mergedwith another blaze and charred an area larger than New York City. At a hearing in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff on Sunday, Gregg was charged with two counts of willfully and without authority setting fire to timber.
Gregg tried to apologize at the hearing, asking: “Can I say I’m sorry for what I did?” He was interrupted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Verkamp, who said he shouldnot make any admissions in open court. Kuenzi said half of the crews committed to the Rodeo fire had been deployed elsewhere, leaving about 1,100 firefighters stillbattling the flames. The area scorched by the blaze measures 650 square miles (1,680 sq. km), twice the size of New York City – and now has a perimeter of about 200miles (320 km). An estimated 30,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in eastern Arizona, and more than 4,000 firefighters were deployed against the blaze atone point. In Colorado, officials said a large wildfire southwest of Denver was expected to be fully contained by Tuesday evening, two days later than originally estimated. The Haymanfire, allegedly started on purpose by a U.S. Forest Service worker who goes on trial on Aug. 26, has destroyed 133 homes. The three-week old fire has consumed 137,760 acres (55,100 hectares). “But we do have some goodnews. All evacuees in the Missionary Ridge fire will be able to go home tonight,” fire information officer Larry Helmerick said of a fire on the other side of the state nearDurango, which has destroyed 56 homes.
UTAH FIRE ACTIVITY BRISK
Fire activity was also brisk in Utah where trees were crowning with flames in a 50,000-acre (20,000-hectare) wildfire near Moab and close to the Green River. A 5,000-acre(2,000 hectare) fire in northeast Utah near the Wyoming border was about 35 miles (55 km) south of Evanston, Wyoming. Officials said 300 homes were threatened and a Boy Scout camp and several campgrounds had beenevacuated. There are 2.8 million acres (1.12 million hectares) on fire throughout the United States, more than double the 10-year average of 1.1 million acres (440,000hectares). Drought and dry timber have turned this year’s fire season into one of the worst in years, according to the National FireInformation Center in Boise, Idaho.Fireworks will not be allowed in any public lands over the Independence Day holiday on July 4. The biggest U.S. fire in recent history wasat Yellowstone National Park in 1988, destroying 1.58 million acres (632,000 hectares).