Firefighters gain on AZ blaze

BY PJ HELLER | HUACHUCA CITY, Ariz. | May 2, 2002

With forecasters predicting calmer winds today, firefighters hoped to make further inroads on Arizona's biggest wildfire of the season that has already burned 36,000 acres.

By Wednesday night, the Ryan fire was reported 75 percent contained. The blaze stalled on the outskirts of Huachuca City, a town of about 1,750 people. Residents had been warned by sheriff's deputies going door-to-door that evacuations might be necessary.

The fire was halted about a mile and a half from the community. Firefighters were aided in their efforts by a massive airdrop of water and retardant on the blaze and improved weather conditions. "We had red flag warnings today and we didn't see the monster winds, high temperatures and high humidity," noted Jim Paxon of the U.S. Forest Service. "It was a really good day for firefighters and they made more progress than we even thought was capable."

Full containment could come by tonight. The fire has destroyed one home. Two barns at the National Audubon Society's Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch were also destroyed. The blaze damaged power lines, knocking out electrical service to Fort Huachuca.

As many as 100 homes were reported evacuated from the Army base but residents were later allowed to return. About 5,000 acres of land at the base were charred.

No injuries were reported since the fire began Monday in rugged terrain in the Coronado National Forest. The fire began as a 250 acre blaze then grew rapidly across the drought-stricken landscape.

The fast-moving fire in southern Arizona grew more than 10 times its original size in a single day, going from 3,000 acres to more than 30,000 acres. Some 500 firefighters were battling the blaze both on the ground and in the air, using air tankers and helicopters to drop water and retardant.

Authorities said they have not determined the cause of the fire but have suggested it was human-caused. The American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter in the town of Sonoita.

Southern Arizona is suffering one of its worst droughts on record and wildfires are a major concern.Gov. Jane Hull was scheduled to tour the area today.

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