Dangerous fire weather spreads across West

Aug. 27, 2002 at 6:33 PM
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PAYSON, Ariz., Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Wildfires that took on new life in the Southwest forced dozens of mountain residents to evacuate their homes in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California as hot, dry weather spread across the entire region.

Red-flag fire warnings were in effect in Northern California and Oregon while watches were posted in the Southwest for a fresh infusion of hot, dry weather that may please pre-Labor Day vacationers, but also increases fire activity in bone-dry Western forests.

Nearly 200 homes outside Payson, Ariz., were voluntarily evacuated Tuesday morning as the Pack Rat fire topped 1,200 acres and crept steadily through the dense forest along the Mogollon Rim.

"The fire is moving toward the northeast and creeping on a diagonal closer toward the Washington Park development," said Joan Hellen, fire information officer for the Pack Rat blaze. "The residents were more than happy to get out of harm's way."

The size of the fire was expected to increase significantly Tuesday as firefighters burned out lines and the fire itself consumed thick, dry vegetation in the canyons and ravines along the rim pushed on by "squirrelly" winds, Hellen said.

"We are expecting people to expect another column of smoke today," she told United Press International. "There are still plenty of fuels out there."

About 100 people near Julian, Calif. were rousted from their slumber early Tuesday and forced to evacuate due to five fires that were apparently ignited by an arsonist. Two homes were lost to the fires, which were started in same area as the Pines fire, which burned around 62,000 acres and destroyed 38 homes before being fully contained just last week. The fires were largely under control Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, an evacuation order in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming was lifted late Monday, but the Pass Creek fire grew to 11,736 acres and remained a potential threat to both structures and winter habitat of large game animals including moose, elk, bears and bighorn sheep.

The 3,300-acre Lakes fire in New Mexico burned four summer homes around Fenton Lake after breaking out Monday and sent residents of a state park and two neighborhoods out of the area after it jumped State Road 126.

"It signals the start of a second fire season," Fire Information Officer Jim Whittington told Albuquerque television station KOB Tuesday.

Late summer in the Southwest is generally marked by tropical monsoon rains that give the mountain forests a good soaking, but the rains this year have been light and scattered and not nearly potent enough to break the grip of extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Across the West, mainly dry weather will team with above-normal temperatures to maintain existing drought conditions," the agency said in its most recent drought forecast.

The National Weather Service had fire weather advisories posted over northern Arizona, southern Nevada and much of Utah due to a pattern of hot, dry, breezy conditions expected to linger through Wednesday.

Red-flag warnings were up in Northern California and in southwestern Oregon where the nation's largest active wildfire, the sprawling Biscuit fire, topped a half-million acres, but was still on track for full containment by Saturday evening.

"Expect northeast winds of 15-20 miles per hour with gusts to 30 mph over the ridges of extreme southwestern Oregon," the Weather Service predicted. "In addition, relative humidity will fall quickly to 15-25 percent. Poor humidity recoveries of 30-40 percent will follow tonight with gusty winds persisting."

While the Biscuit fire did not appear to pose a threat of jumping its containment lines, the increasing wind and falling humidity to other nearby fires, particularly the 9,300-acre Apple fire, which is located 21 miles east of Glide was only 20 percent contained.

Elite "hot shot" crews toiled through the night to light burnout fires that would block the main fire's advance toward ridges in the Dry Creek area.

"Last night's firing operation along Twin Lakes Ridge was successful and will give us the hinge that will allow us to close the door," said Day Operations Section Chief Joe Molhoek. "But we are expecting increased temperatures and reduced humidity today and will have to do all we can to hang on through this burning period."

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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