Arizona wildfire creeps toward evacuated mountain community as the worst is feared

Associated Press Wildfires on Mount Graham near Safford, Ariz., burn near the Large Binocular Telescope, upper left, Monday.

Associated Press Wildfires on Mount Graham near Safford, Ariz., burn near the Large Binocular Telescope, upper left, Monday.

SAFFORD, Ariz. (AP) - Even as firefighters using slurry bombers and bulldozers managed to beat back flames threatening a mountaintop observatory, the wildfire was approaching a mountainside community.

The lightning-sparked fire in southeastern Arizona grew to 8,550 acres by Monday, officials said, and had burned to within a few miles of the community of Turkey Flat, which has 74 cabins.

Fire officials said flames could reach the town Tuesday.

Shenoa Greywolf said the surrounding Mount Graham is sacred to her and her husband, who are both American Indians. "I'm crying and praying every day," she said. "Mount Graham is my back yard."

At a meeting Monday night, Dan Oltrogge, an incident commander for the team fighting the fire, tried to calm the community's fears but spoke frankly about strategy. "It's doubtful that if the fire approaches that I would put firefighters in there," he said.

The wildfire, along with a nearby 7,810-acre blaze, prompted the evacuation of a $200 million-plus observatory and about 90 cabins on Mount Graham on Friday. Oltrogge said that the fires were not expected to join as previously predicted.

Richard Lines, 59, has owned his Turkey Flat cabin for the past 25 years. Although he's worried about his summer home, Lines said nothing is worth more than a human life.

"I don't want anyone's life put in jeopardy because of my cabin," he said. "Everything is replaceable, but a life is not."

On Monday, authorities escorted some cabin owners to Turkey Flat so they could collect belongings.

"I can't hardly stand it to think there's a fire up there," said Verna Colvin, whose family owns a cabin in Turkey Flat. "It won't be the same if it burns up. It's like my life is going."

Firefighters managed to widen a defensive ring around the Mount Graham International Observatory on Monday. Researchers from around the world use the observatory, which is an extension of the University of Arizona.

It encompasses eight buildings and 8 1/2 acres of pine forest on Mount Graham's 10,470-foot Emerald Peak. It is surrounded by a 200-foot-wide clearing and has a sprinkler system that officials said would be turned on if flames came within a quarter-mile.

Pruett Small, a fire official, has said that even if the observatory building doesn't burn, the smoke and heat could damage the delicate instruments inside.

Brent Wachter, a meteorologist in Albuquerque, N.M., said smoldering embers swept up in the unstable air around the wildfires threatened to spread the flames.

"Just like bullets in a gun, they're going to go off," he said.

The U.S. Forest Service has sent tanker planes to help Arizona. The planes, former Navy P-3 Orions, arrived Sunday, two days after federal officials said the aircraft's private operator had demonstrated they are safe to fly, said Ken Frederick, a fire information officer.

In Alaska, an evacuation order remained in effect for the more than 280 homes and businesses threatened by a blaze some 30 miles north of Fairbanks. The blaze had spread across 307,000 acres Monday.

Firefighters also battled a 200,000-acre fire about 50 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

In central Washington, two fires near Lake Chelan have burned a total of nearly 5,500 acres. There were no reports of structure damage or serious injuries. Hundreds of firefighters were trying to make headway against the two fires before expected high wind later in the week.

Authorities in Colorado lifted evacuation recommendations for 129 homes uses near a 2,960-acre wildfire outside Cedaredge in the west-central part of the state as cloudy, calm weather helped firefighters. The lightning-caused fire was 35 percent contained Monday, said Larry Helmerick, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Group.


On the Net:

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