Reporting from Springerville, Ariz., and Los Angeles -- More than 3,000 firefighters battling one of the largest wildfires in Arizona history got a break from nature Thursday when high winds driving the flames lost strength.
The Wallow fire, chewing through 386,000 acres of pine, fir and spruce in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, continued to burn on the edge of small towns scattered across the sparsely populated area. More than two dozen homes have been lost and more than 4,000 structures are threatened.
A thick haze hung over the region and a major part of the blaze was described as 5% contained. The fierce winds that earlier in the week knocked small trees sideways abated, aiding fire crews who used a DC-10 air tanker from California to dump fire retardant on the blaze’s troublesome northwestern corner. Light winds were expected until Saturday afternoon.
Thursday morning, the fire was half a mile from the New Mexico border and about a mile from Springerville and Eagar. Crews had burned out a line of defense, and officials said residents of the two towns would probably be able to return to their homes on Saturday.
Flames romped across the east side of the resort community of Greer on Wednesday, destroying 22 homes and a number of outbuildings. “Greer is not out of danger,” said Jim Whittington, a spokesman for the firefighting efforts. “There’s a lot of fire out there.”
Altogether, 27 homes have burned, officials said Thursday night.
“If we only had one problem area, we’d be able to knock it out,” Whittington said.
Residents of the region are all too familiar with monster blazes. The biggest wildfire in the state’s history, the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, also tore through the White Mountains. Just as they did then, many locals are angrily pointing a finger at national forest management.
On Wednesday night, as most of Springerville was emptying out, a handful of people huddled in the Safire Restaurant’s lounge to watch TV.
Safire co-owner Barry Harris, 61, who has lived in the Springerville area for two decades, blamed the fire’s spread on parched brush. He said the forest hadn’t been logged and grazed enough, which left it clogged with dead wood and trees. He believed environmental protections were partly at fault.
“A person could not physically walk through it,” he said, dismissing U.S. Forest Service officials as East Coast bureaucrats — a common insult in these parts. “This is our forest and they won’t let us take care of it.”
It is an argument heard across the West, but experts say the logging of big trees and heavy grazing in the last century helped lay the foundation for the Wallow and the Rodeo-Chediski conflagrations.
Cutting the old ponderosa pines opened the forest floor to dense young growth. Grazing eliminated the grasses that fed the frequent, low-intensity fires to which the pineland vegetation had adapted. Federal policies to quench forest fires as quickly as possible compounded the problem by promoting the buildup of brush and unnaturally thick stands of trees.
“We need to turn forestry on its head,” said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “Leave the old growth alone … focus on harvesting the small-diameter trees. Open the forest to restore more natural conditions and then reintroduce fire.”
A pioneering program in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest that embraces the White Mountains towns has been doing just that. About 35,000 acres have been thinned near the communities as part of an ongoing Forest Service project to reduce the fire risk and supply local wood operations with small trees they turn into fencing, wood pellets and lumber.
Rick Davalos, supervising ranger of the Alpine Ranger District, said forest thinning that created buffers as wide as half a mile spared the communities of Alpine and Nutrioso.
When the Wallow, which was barreling through treetops, reached the thinned-out stretches, the flames died down and spread across the ground, where they were easier to snuff out. “The fire did exactly what we predicted,” he said. “It couldn’t go from tree to tree because it’s not as dense.”
A handful of structures have been lost, but “it’s not even 1%,” Davalos said. “If we hadn’t thinned around here, firefighters probably wouldn’t have had time to save a lot of structures.”
Todd Schulke of the Center for Biological Diversity noted that environmentalists had not filed a lawsuit on the Apache-Sitgreaves for a decade. “We’ve really poured our hearts and souls into community protection and landscape restoration,” he said. “It’s unfortunate people are still stuck in the 1990s. Our hope is with success, the narrative will change.”
Powers reported from Springerville and Boxall from Los Angeles.