PHOENIX Firefighters gained greater control Monday over two wildfires thatreduced more than half a million acres of forest across two states to blackened wasteland, destroying 500 structures and forcing thousands of people to flee theirhomes.
In Arizona, residents who were evacuated when the Rodeo fire raced toward theircommunities were allowed to return home, as fire crews took advantage of a shift inwinds and cooler temperatures to harness much of the the 464,000-acre blaze.
A 29-year-old contract firefighter, who allegedly started the blaze in order to getseasonal work, was charged with two counts of arson and remained behind bars pending a hearing scheduled for Wednesday. It was the second time that a firefighter was charged with setting a major blaze in the bone-dry timberland of theAmerican West at the onset of what officials fear could be one of the worst fireseasons ever.
The small towns of Show Low and Forest Lakes, Ariz., which were threatened byimmolation in the worst fire in state history, were considered out of danger, thoughresidents of Forest Lakes were still barred from returning home.
“The entire fire is winding down,” fire spokeswoman Amanda Kuenzi said of theblaze. “We’ve got really favorable weather conditions today. The winds are out ofthe north, which is keeping the fire blowing back in on itself. It’s still a periloussituation out there because there is always the chance of spot fires, but right nowthere’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 IndianAffairs, allegedly set two fires, one of which grew into the huge Rodeo fire thatmerged with 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 withtwo counts of willfully and without authority setting fire to timber. Gregg tried toapologize 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 should notmake any admissions in open court.
Kuenzi said half of the crews committed to the Rodeo fire had been deployedelsewhere, leaving about 1,100 firefighters still battling the flames. The area scorched by the blaze measures 650 square miles , twice the size of New York City and now has a perimeter of about 200 miles. 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 at one point.
In Colorado, officials said a large wildfire southwest of Denver was expected to befully contained by Tuesday evening, two days later than originally estimated. TheHayman fire, allegedly started on purpose by a U.S. Forest Service worker who goeson trial on Aug. 26, has destroyed 133 homes. The three-week old fire has consumed 137,760 acres.
“But we do have some good news. All evacuees in the Missionary Ridge fire will beable to go home tonight,” fire information officer Larry Helmerick said of a fire on theother side of the state near Durango, which has destroyed 56 homes.
UTAH FIRE ACTIVITY BRISK Fire activity was also brisk in Utah, where trees were crowning with flames in a50,000-acre wildfire near Moab and close to the Green River.
A 5,000-acre fire in northeast Utah near the Wyoming border was about 35 milessouth of Evanston, Wyo. Officials said 300 homes were threatened and a Boy Scoutcamp and several campgrounds had been evacuated.
There are 2.8 million acres on fire throughout the United States, more than doublethe 10-year average of 1.1 million acres. Drought and dry timber have turned thisyear’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 landsover the Independence Day holiday on July 4. The biggest U.S. fire in recent historywas at Yellowstone National Park in 1988, destroying 1.58 million acres.