June 10, 2011

Raging wildfire rekindles blame

The dense pine forest growth has fueled huge blazes in recent years, like the Wallow Fire now burning northeast of Phoenix.


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Wallow Fire on Highway 260 in Eagar, Ariz.

AP Photo/Arizona Republic

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Firefighters sharpen their tools as they prepare for a back burn operation in Eagar, Ariz., on Wednesday. Winds could drive a wildfire into New Mexico, where residents of the town of Luna prepared to evacuate Thursday. Authorities said there was no containment in sight.

The Associated Press

Sen. John 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 the resort town of Greer, which is threatened by the flames. "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 remove 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 small communities from the current fire.

"If it weren't for that, we'd probably be having a much different discussion about Alpine right now, Nutrioso and Springerville," said Chris Knopp, supervisor of the Apache-Sitgreaves forest. "Those areas do have a buffer around them that has helped the firefighters very much in controlling this fire."

The same debate over the ecology-industry balance is also happening in the halls of Washington.

"What we're really trying to accomplish with that project is a real balance in synergy between the ecological results we want and an industry that will help support that goal," Knopp said.

Asked about the blaze that has devoured about a quarter of the forest he manages, Knopp choked up.

"It's heartbreaking, to be blunt," he said. "This is some of the most beautiful country in the world. It's very difficult to see it change so fast."

The current fire had swallowed up 11 structures before destroying at least six homes overnight in Greer. Power lines that supply much of West Texas and southern New Mexico are also in jeopardy.

Winds were expected to shift later Thursday and could drive the flames into New Mexico, where residents of the small town of Luna were preparing to evacuate.

Authorities said there was no containment in sight.


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