As Arizona Fire Rages, Officials Seek Its Cause

As Arizona Fire Rages, Officials Seek Its Cause

11 June 2011

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USA — There is no yellow police tape ringing the huge wildfire raging along Arizona’s eastern flank, but the torched forest is a crime scene nonetheless.

Deep within the burn zone, while trying to extinguish the more than 600-square-mile Wallow Fire, firefighters have taken care not to tread on two small areas in the Bear Wallow Wilderness where smoke and flames were first spotted about two miles apart on May 29. Those two fires quickly merged into one big, unruly, runaway blaze that eludes containment nearly two weeks later.

“We try to protect the point of origin,” said Joe Reinarz, a Forest Service veteran who has been leading the fight against the fire. “We put some water over it, but we try not to move anything or walk on it. It’s just like a crime scene.”

Many wildfires are caused by humans — and investigators say this one may have been started by two unattended campfires — distinguishing them from hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. But the disasters are similar in the destructive forces they let loose and the trauma the victims endure.

A Red Cross evacuation center set up at a local high school could have been outside Joplin, Mo. But it was fire, not swirling wind, that was the talk of the dazed survivors on the rows of cots.

“I never believed I’d be so close to something like this,” said John Burton, who moved to Eagar, on the edge of the White Mountains, 18 years ago from the East Coast with his wife, Rose. “I heard it was coming day after day. Then the smoke was there and the huge red glow. That’s when we headed out.”

Mrs. Burton knows a thing or two about evacuation centers, having worked in one in 2002 for those fleeing the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which chewed through an area even more vast than the 408,000 acres of burned-out forest left by this fire. That fire took a different path through the White Mountains, and the evacuees were taken to Eagar. This time, it was Eagar residents who found themselves displaced.

Residents heaped plenty of blame on Mother Nature as harsh winds spread the flames and low humidity left the forest full of fuel. But residents and experts also pointed their fingers at a variety of policies that they said had contributed to wildfires that seem to have grown in intensity over the years.

Some complained that it was environmentalists who had caused the forests to become tinderboxes by preventing the thinning of trees as they sought to protect wildlife. Others, like William Wallace Covington, a forestry expert at Northern Arizona University, countered that the leading factor was the grazing of forest grass for generations. The government’s longstanding practice of quickly extinguishing forest fires was also seen as adding to the thick clusters of highly combustible trees.

Just 10 days before the Wallow Fire broke out, Forest Service officials lifted fire restrictions in the area. The announcement said that recent snow and rain in the Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests had “mitigated the fire danger temporarily.”

“You can second-guess anything you do, but you make decisions based on the information you have at the time,” said Rick Davalos, the Alpine District ranger.

The Wallow Fire itself has hampered the Forest Service inquiry into the specific cause. But as winds let up and firefighters made modest progress on Thursday and Friday, the wildfire arson investigators began visiting the rugged area where the fire was first spotted, searching for clues, officials said.

Often in these kinds of inquiries, answers are never found. In the case of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, however, investigators determined that two separate culprits were to blame. The initial blaze was intentionally set by an out-of-work firefighter. A second fire was ignited by a stranded motorist seeking to attract the attention of a television news helicopter. The fires merged, destroying more than 468,000 acres.

The Wallow Fire, which continued surging toward the northeast on Saturday, was first reported by a spotter from the adjacent Fort Apache Indian Reservation who was specifically on the lookout for new fires. He reported it at 2:09 p.m. to a Forest Service spotter. A second fire was noticed a couple of hours later and may have been an outgrowth of the first one. The flames spread so fast that they may end up burning an even greater area than the blaze from a decade ago, which has residents furious.

“I want to know who, what, where, when and why — mostly the why,” said Mike Nuttall, the police chief of Springerville, one of several towns that have been evacuated. “One or two people can destroy a wide area and affect a lot of people.”

Those effects extend well across the state line, with the fire itself crossing into New Mexico on Saturday and a thick smoky fog spreading far and wide.

Albuquerque appeared more like San Francisco. “It typically rolls in at 6:30 or so and stays the entire night,” said Michael Pittman, who manages Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill, where business has been down significantly because of the haze.

With air quality posing serious health threats, a number of softball games and concerts were canceled in Albuquerque, and an indoor pool was closed on Tuesday after smoke and ash clogged the pool’s filters.

“It smells like something is on fire next door, not necessarily a state away,” said Eric Werner, a city spokesman.

Officials in southern New Mexico were breathing a bit easier Friday morning as it appeared that power transmission lines near the fire’s path were safe.

“The feeling today is much more optimistic,” said Jess Williams, a spokesman for Doña Ana County, which gets all its power from El Paso Electric, which had warned last week that the fire might affect its power supply. “It doesn’t look like we’ll have rolling blackouts. Of course, the winds could change.”

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