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Arizona residents return home to 'moonscape'

Tami Wellington, left, of Lakeside, Arizona, bids farewell to her friend Sharon Murrey who's returning to her home in Show Low.
Tami Wellington, left, of Lakeside, Arizona, bids farewell to her friend Sharon Murrey who's returning to her home in Show Low.  


SHOW LOW, Arizona (CNN) -- Residents began returning to their homes east of a giant Arizona wildfire Saturday, after spending a week watching from afar as the inferno threatened their neighborhoods and charred nearly half a million acres.

But areas west of the town of Clay Springs -- where the massive Rodeo-Chediski still threatens to overrun several communities -- were still closed.

"The fire danger has abated here," said fire information officer Jim Paxon, "but it's still just as active over on the west side as it was here four, five, six days ago."

In addition, officials said, the Timberland Acres subdivision just east of Pinedale remained closed.

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"Timberland will be totally shut down until further notice," Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler said. "We have some problems in that area and we don't feel safe letting people back in there."

Paxon cautioned that residents returning to Show Low, Clay Springs, McNary, Hon Dah and other communities would see a landscape starkly different from the one they left earlier in the week.

"What was green in many cases is going to be black and look like a moonscape," he said. "There's still going to be tendrils of smoke, and from inside there are still going to be islands of 100 to 500 acres where the fire is waiting to burn up ... We know where those hot spots are and we're going after them."

On the 700-square-mile fire's western flank, a two-lane highway served as an asphalt line in the sand where firefighters battled to keep the flames from spreading to more communities.

The fire burned to within a mile and a half of Forest Lakes, Paxon said, deep in a craggy canyon -- with two more canyons in its path Saturday.

"We just cannot put firefighters down in a deep canyon in front of a wall of flame," he said.

But Paxon said firefighters had made excellent progress on the fire's south flank, near the town of Carrizo. Fire burned to within 200 yards of homes there, but "behaved textbook perfectly" and burned back down to a burnout line, where it stopped.

"That's what we mean by fight fire with fire," Paxon said. "The only good line is a black line."

The progress in the south allowed firefighters to boost their containment to 27 percent, and Paxon said "it might jump another 10 or 12 percent" Saturday. The entire Rodeo-Chediski fire was at 10 percent containment.

But the veteran fireman said there still was a long way to go.

Members of the Sierra Hothot crew of Oakhurst, California, maintain the fire line during a back burn near Cibecue, Arizona, on Friday.
Members of the Sierra Hothot crew of Oakhurst, California, maintain the fire line during a back burn near Cibecue, Arizona, on Friday.  

"We won't turn the corner until we get about 75 percent containment and there's no major advance of fire like we have over in that Forest Lakes area," he said.

"It's where we were five days ago over here (near Show Low)," Paxon said.

The massive fire reached 437,000 acres, Paxon said early Saturday, lowering an estimate released late Friday. Nearly 30,000 residents were forced out of their homes by the fire as a precaution.

More than 4,100 firefighters are battling the blaze. Officials said 423 homes have been lost -- but thousands have been saved.

As another fire continued to burn in Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service announced it has terminated Terry Barton, the woman accused of starting it. (Full story)



 
 
 
 







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