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Wildfires threaten 9 states

BY PJ HELLER | TRUCHAS, NM | May 26, 2002

"The worst hasn't happened yet, but the potential is there"

—Joan Vasey

Firefighters continued to battle wildfires in several states today with authorities warning that fire danger this Memorial Day weekend remained "very high to extreme" in at least nine states from Alaska to Florida.

More than 100 Arizona residents of Mount Lemmon near the Coronado National Forest were ordered to leave their homes Sunday afternoon as wind-whipped flames threatened as many as 700 year-round and vacation homes.

"The worst hasn't happened yet, but the potential is there," said Joan Vasey a forest spokesperson. More than 12,500 acres had burned by Sunday evening.

In New Mexico, moderate winds Saturday afternoon fanned the 11,000-acre Barrego fire in the rugged Pecos Wilderness Area of the Santa Fe National Forest. Firefighters earlier in the day reported that favorable weather conditions - rising humidity and lessening winds - were aiding them in their battle to slow the blaze.

The fire had threatened the town of Truchas, forcing the evacuation earlier in the week of residents there. Residents were allowed back into their homes Saturday morning but the National Interagency Coordination Center said the community as well as the town of Cordova remained threatened. No structures were damaged. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Full containment of the fire, which began Wednesday, is not expected for another week, depending on weather conditions. Nearly 900 firefighters were battling the blaze on the ground and from the air, using helicopters and air tankers.

A smaller 1,113-acre fire 32 miles west of Raton, N.M., was expected to be contained today.

Firefighters in Colorado, meantime, gained the upper hand on the Schoonover fire in western Douglas County and expected to have the 4,000-acre blaze contained by tonight. The fire, started by lightning strikes, destroyed 13 structures including four homes. The blaze was in the Pike-San Isabel National Forest and burned within about three miles southwest of the town of Deckers, forcing some evacuations there.

Four other fires in Colorado totaling nearly 3,500 acres were reported in the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest.

In Arizona, a wildfire in the Coronado National Forest charred more than 12,500 acres. The Bullock fire was burning 15 miles northeast of Tucson.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered today for residents in the Mount Lemmon Highway area. The community of Summerhaven remained threatened, officials said.

In Alaska, where unusually hot, dry weather has gripped the state, more than 20 wildfires were burning over the weekend. Firefighters were battling six of the major blazes and monitoring the others, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center said.

One of the fires, some 50 miles east of Fairbanks, burned about 7,600 acres and forced the evacuation of several residents in a subdivision there, according to the fire agency. One cabin was destroyed by the fire. Firefighters were trying to keep the blaze away from the Angel Creek Lodge to the west and the Chena Hot Springs Resort to the east.

The fire was being fought from the ground and from the air, with air tankers dropping more than 8,000 gallons of retardant on the flames. The air tankers were later diverted to Anderson, where a blaze, sparked by a campground fire, had quickly spread to 15 acres, officials said.

A 4,000-acre blaze dubbed the Vinasale fire was also being attacked by fire crews. The blaze was about 15 miles south of McGrath but the town was not threatened, officials said.

Other fires in Alaska included a 6,300-acre blaze near Livengood and a 3,370-acre fire near Kalskag.

The largest of the fires in Alaska was a nearly 40,000-acre blaze on the bombing range at the U.S. Army's Fort Greely, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks. That remote fire, which was not threatening any structures, was being monitored.

Alaskan authorities urged residents and visitors to exercise caution.

"The Memorial Day weekend can be one of the most dangerous times of the year for human-caused wildfires," officials said. "This year the fire danger is especially high, due to record warm temperatures, low humidity, gusty winds and dry, flammable vegetation. Fire managers with the Alaska Fire Service and the Alaska Division of Forestry are asking people not to burn brush and other debris until conditions improve. Please be very careful with cigarettes, campfires and all other fires."

Elsewhere, fires were reported burning about four miles north of Fort McCoy in Florida and in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge 10 miles northeast of Fargo, Ga. Smaller blazes erupted in Minnesota and Idaho.

In addition to Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, other states with very high to extreme fire indices were Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, Texas and Utah.

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