Massive Ariz. wildfire expected to enter New Mexico
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.
Christie reported from Phoenix.
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