Huge Arizona wildfire rekindles forest debate

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SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — A major wildfire in Arizona's eastern mountains burned out of control early Friday after charring more than 603 square miles of timber, destroying dozens of structures and keeping thousands of evacuees away from their homes.

Crews Thursday made progress in burning up fuel ahead of the fire as part of a strategy to choke it on its northern flanks. Smoke from the burn operations puffed shades of black and gray in the hills just above the town of Eagar as grass was singed and trees here and there lit up orange.

Helicopters helped with the operations and a large air tanker dropped fire retardant on the northwestern edge to keep the flames from hooking around and making a run for Eagar and Springerville.

As conditions eased somewhat, fire officials took stock of what the Wallow fire did in the resort community of Greer: 22 homes lost, five damaged, and two dozen outbuildings charred when the fire raced through a day earlier.

Fire information officer Jim Whittington told reporters Thursday night that unfortunately losing home to wildfires has become too common.

"If you've been with those folks when they go back in, it doesn't matter if they're rich or poor, if they live in a mansion or if they live in a very small house, the pain on people's faces is exactly the same," he said during a late night briefing. "Our hearts go out to those folks."

It wasn't clear when thousands of residents would be allowed to return to Greer and the handful of other communities in eastern Arizona that were forced to evacuate because of the 603-square-mile blaze. Their return would depend on weather conditions, fire activity and the bolstering of miles of fire line.

The 386,000-acre blaze with just 5 percent containment. After reportedly being sparked by a campfire, it has become the second-largest wildfire in state history and is still growing.

The fire has rekindling the blame game surrounding ponderosa pine forests that have become dangerously overgrown after a century of fire suppression.

Some critics put the responsibility on environmentalists for lawsuits that have cut back on logging. Others blame overzealous firefighters for altering the natural cycle of lightning-sparked fires that once cleared the forest floor.

Either way, forests across the West that once had 50 trees per acre now have hundreds, sometimes thousands, and much of the landscape is choked with tinder-dry brush.

The density of the growth has fueled immense conflagrations in recent years, like now burning in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

"I think what is happening proves the debate," said state Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from rural Snowflake.

In the past, a 30-square-mile fire was considered huge. "And it used to be the loggers got right on it. Never in the past have you had these huge fires."

Today, it's not uncommon for fires to exceed 150 square miles.

An extremely dry late winter and spring contributed to the fire conditions, drying out the forest and allowing fierce winds to carry the flames into the treetops, where they spread by miles each day.

Many in Arizona blame the legal battles that have erupted over old-growth logging that threatened endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl. Since those disputes prevented regular logging that would have thinned the number of trees, the forests became overgrown, they say.

Environmentalists insist that theory is just a scare tactic.

"That's just wrong, flat-out wrong," said Bryan Bird of Wildearth Guardians, which has been involved in some of the lawsuits. "These people are misinformed or they're intentionally trying to scare people in a time that they're already terrified. It's pure politics."

Experts such as professor Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University, who has studied Western forests for decades, say the problems have been building for decades, and blaming lawsuits ignores those facts. Nearly half a million square miles of ponderosa and conifer forests are at risk across the West, he said.

Historically, those forests were relatively thin, with grass and wildflowers growing beneath the canopy. Every two to 10 years, a fire would move through and burn out the undergrowth and small trees.

As the region was settled in the 1880s, cattle were brought in to feast on the grass, which limited fires and let small trees mature. Early foresters liked that, because they wanted the forest fully stocked with trees. And they began putting out fires early in the 1900s to help the trees grow, Covington said.

As the forest got thicker, fires got harder to fight, and the U.S. Forest Service hired thousands of men to battle the flames. Small fires that reached into the treetops were first seen in Arizona in the 1940s. Over the following decades, the typical treetop fire went from a few acres to a few thousand to more than 10,000 by the 1990s.

Then early in the 2000s, huge conflagrations emerged that turned hundreds of thousands of acres to ash.

"Now, we're firmly in the multiple 100,000-acre landscape fire,' Covington said.

Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, says environmental lawsuits have put the nation's forests at risk. And in places where the Apache-Sitgreaves forest had been thinned, he said, crews were better able to control the fire.

"So it does work," said Kyl, who has a cabin in Greer. "And we haven't been able to do as much of it as we would like."

The Forest Service has acknowledged the problem, setting up nine restoration projects across the West designed to let private industry thin small trees. In Arizona, the Four Forests Initiative is expected to help clear about 50 square miles a year and use the discarded brush for construction material. But the plan isn't off the ground yet, angering some, including Allen.

When the plan does start, it will build on projects already under way in the state's White Mountains, where similar efforts are credited with saving some communities from the current fire.

Thursday marked the first day that firefighters had favorable weather conditions, Whittington said. Friday was expected to be another mild day, and crews were ready to make the most of it before the return of gusty winds Saturday afternoon.

"There's still a lot of fire out there and it's going to move around," he said.

Crews were already working on fire lines across the border in western New Mexico. The flames had yet to reach that state by early Friday, but residents of the small town of Luna were preparing to evacuate.