KWAME HOLMAN: In seven western states today, 19 large fires were burning on some three-quarters of a million acres, according to federal officials. The National Interagency Fire Center says, in Arizona, the largest wildfire in state history was created yesterday when two fires joined 150 miles northeast of Phoenix. The fire had threatened to engulf the now-evacuated town of Show Low. Light wind and cooler-than- expected temperatures slowed the advance of the fire, but firefighters remained wary.
JIM PAXSON, Fire Information Officer: We still think fire is going to come into Show Low. We think it is inevitable because unless we put bulldozer through a bunch of houses and tear up a bunch of pavement, we don't have a good place to stop it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fire crews pulled back and prepared to attack the fire wherever it hits first in the town of 7,700, which was emptied Saturday. In all, some 30,000 Arizonans have abandoned a half dozen towns in the area. Some are getting restless.
MAN: I just want to go home. I want to find out about my house. I want to find out if it's still there. I want to know, and I'm not finding anything out. And I'm getting a little bit upset about it.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Arizona wildfire has burned more than 300,00 acres, nearly 500 square miles, of mostly national forest land. It began as two separate blazes last week, which destroyed 116 homes near Show Low and 70 more homes 35 miles west.
In Colorado, crews fought a 63,000-acre blaze that had destroyed 45 homes in the southwestern corner of the state near Durango. That fire is said to be 30 percent contained. A larger, 137,000-acre blaze south of Denver had destroyed at least 133 homes and was 69 percent contained. Five thousand residents still are displaced. The Federal Interagency Fire Center said about 2,000 people near Denver remained under evacuation orders down from nearly 9,000 last week.
JIM LEHRER: For the latest on the fires in Arizona, we're going to Abel Camarena, Deputy regional Forester for the Southwest region of the U.S. Forest Service. Mr. Camarena, welcome.
ABEL CAMARENA, Deputy Regional Forester, U.S. Forest Service: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: How would you describe the fire as we speak, sir?
ABEL CAMARENA: A very dramatic and sad and tragic event.
JIM LEHRER: What is the nature of it right now? Is it under control in any way? Is it still spreading? What is it, as a fire -- fire, how would you describe it?
ABEL CAMARENA: There is a catastrophic wildfire. There is no containment at this time. The weather is one of the main determining factors with what will happen with this fire. It is very hot and dry. We've had winds off and on that have caused and influenced the fire behavior.
JIM LEHRER: Now these were two fires that actually burned together, is that right? Or came together?
ABEL CAMARENA: That's correct. The Rodeo fire and Chediski fires.
JIM LEHRER: How do the two fires begin, do you know?
ABEL CAMARENA: We understand that the Chediski fire is a human caused fire. We believe the Rodeo fire is a human caused but it is under investigation.
JIM LEHRER: Human caused -- what details can you add to that?
ABEL CAMARENA: We have no details on the Rodeo fire. On the Chediski fire, we believe the fire was started by a hiker in the White Mountain Apache Indian reservation lands that was lost.
JIM LEHRER: He was signaling, for a rescue, is that it?
ABEL CAMARENA: We understand that it was a woman hiker who was lost, yes, and used the fire for signaling a helicopter that was flying nearby.
JIM LEHRER: Explain to us, Abel Camarena how somebody sets a fire like that just for signaling purposes for an innocent purpose but suddenly it spreads and now we're talking about 300,000 acres. What is the process? What causes this to happen so large and so fast?
ABEL CAMARENA: What we're experiencing down here one of the driest years that Arizona has in its recorded history. The winter was very dry, very little moisture. So what you've got is a very dry forest. You have hot temperatures. You have windy conditions. So if you have an ignition, a spark or some form of ignition, there is 100 percent probability that a fire will start easily, will grow quickly and burn very intensely.
JIM LEHRER: Now what is the monitoring process for this? I mean what do you and your colleagues do to keep watch over these forests at times like this when there is a special possibility of a fire?
ABEL CAMARENA: We have been concerned that because of the dry winter that we had, that we were facing a tough fire season this year, so we began early on to alert the public that we were probably going to deal with a very severe fire season. We started to do what we call fire prevention, which is to get the word out to the public and contact individual homeowners and to help them understand what we might be facing. We also brought in extra resources to position them early in order for them to be available to us should we get an ignition. So we have basically got the word out early to the public. We pre-positioned resources so they would be available, and then we initiated fire restrictions, which basically started to restrict the use of fire and eventually for New Mexico and Arizona, led to forest area closures.
JIM LEHRER: And -- but other than that there, was nothing you could do. You can't treat one of these forests, right? You can't go in there and treat them for fire beforehand?
ABEL CAMARENA: We have identified that down here in Arizona and New Mexico, we have about 1.9 million acres associated with the wild and urban interface -- that is those forest settings next to communities that need to be treated. Last year we treated about 150,000 acres. This year we have about 105,000 acres that we need to treat in order to reduce the accumulation of hazardous fuel therefore modifying the fire behavior.
JIM LEHRER: But it hasn't worked very well, right?
ABEL CAMARENA: It's been a real challenge to us to get to the point where once a decision has been made, after having gone through the appropriate analysis process, to get that decision implemented. It has been very difficult.
JIM LEHRER: Now the Show Low situation, we just had a tape where it was somebody on the scene there that said they expected that fire to eventually just destroy Show Low. People are gone, of course. The place has been evacuated. Can you add anything to that? Is it most likely that town will be completely burned out?
ABEL CAMARENA: What I think I saw yesterday were areas where you had the kind of fuels that would, in fact, ignite should the fire start sending embers in the direction of the community. The fire has gotten closer; as of late this afternoon the fire had not burned into the community. I suspect there will be areas of the community that would be burned. Now how extensive that will be is going to depend on a lot of things. Most of it just being luck and where the fuels are located that might be ignited.
JIM LEHRER: When you say fuels, you mean gasoline and gas station, something like that, right?
ABEL CAMARENA: Well, that's one possible source of fuel but I'm mostly referring to the vegetation that's in and around all the different structures.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, when does this end? I mean if it goes into Show Low and then what happens?
ABEL CAMARENA: Well, the worst case scenario could be that if the fire burns through the community of Show Low, it continue on east toward the community of Springerville some 50 miles away which is mostly Ponderosa Pine forest. The latest projections for moisture are that we would not see what we call a fire season ending event until late July, which means that the monsoon rains which typically set up in this part of the country about the first of July. For Arizona, it doesn't look like they'll set up until the end of July bringing sufficient moisture to start changing the fire conditions.
JIM LEHRER: So Mr. Camarena, you're saying, in other words, that this thing could be just beginning.
ABEL CAMARENA: Yes. It has just begun. The fire began on the 18th of June, and so here we are six days later and I flew over it yesterday several times and it's burning very, very dramatically. We are seeing fire behavior that 30-year firefighting seasoned veterans have never seen fire behavior like this. So we're doing everything we can when we've got moments where we can aggressively fight this fire but thus far our efforts haven't had significant impact.
JIM LEHRER: Is there just nothing to do-- you say aggressively fight it but what does that mean and what more can you do?
ABEL CAMARENA: Well, what it means is that if we've got an opportunity, especially during at night, where we can position a crew, a hot shot crew to work in a particular location where we think if we put in a fire line and we remove fuel from the fire that we can hold it at that point. So we've got-- as long as the fire is burning aggressively during the daytime, it is too dangerous and hazardous for our firefighters to be involved, so we're looking for those windows where we can put firefighters on the line, have them do the flanking actions that they're so skilled at, also using retardant drops throughout the day to try to slow that fire down.
JIM LEHRER: But you are not optimistic this is going to stop anytime soon?
ABEL CAMARENA: Well, the conditions are such that it is going to continue to be hot and dry for the next foreseeable future. There is no forecast of moisture that could make a difference in the near future. So the conditions are right for this fire to do as Mother Nature would dictate.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Camarena thank you, sir, and good luck.
ABEL CAMARENA: Thank you.