TOM BEARDEN: From a distance, the smoke from eastern Arizona's fires looks like the mushroom cloud from a hydrogen bomb. Closer up, the fire boils out of the pine-covered canyons, incinerating everything in its path. Helicopters dart in and out, carrying huge buckets of water. Slurry bombers drop their loads along the fire's front, an increasingly familiar and disheartening sight across the West this summer.
Twenty large fires in nine states have already consumed 2.5 million acres, and it's still early in the fire season. But despite all these efforts, nearly 400 homes have been destroyed in Arizona, and whole towns are still threatened with complete destruction. The so-called Rodeo-Chediski fire has burned over a third of a million acres, and it could get much larger before it's contained.
Most of the attention has been focused on firefighters frantically setting backfires, trying to protect the resort town of Show Low. The fire is just a half a mile from the edge of town. Over the last several days, officials have shifted from optimism to pessimism, and back several times; the outlook at the mercy of unpredictable winds.
About 700 people, many of them from Show Low, are sleeping in a domed football stadium in the town of Eagar, 60 miles east. They're among an estimated 30,000 people who have fled their homes. The Red Cross has set up cots on the field's artificial surface, and families have staked out their spaces. People of all ages are here, from the very young to the very old. The days go slowly because there isn't much to do. The boredom is broken by three daily briefings by the U.S. Forest Service on the progress of the fires.
FOREST SERVICE SPOKESPERSON: They have major back-burning plan tonight, and I want to try to find out along which line, you know, where that is in relation to Pinetop Lakeside. So, those are the kinds of things I'm going to try to get better information about this afternoon.
TOM BEARDEN: As the day wears on, some turn to sports. Others try to sleep, despite the constant noise generated by so many people.
SPOKESMAN: At noon, it was 17, 18 miles an hour, and then gusting to 18 miles an hour. Again at 4:00, that in the Show Low area.
TOM BEARDEN: People cluster around the single television set whenever there are reports on the fire and the weather. After the late newscasts, shelter operators start turning off the glaring lights of the sports complex, and people try to settle in for the night. Expectant mother Sonia Magoon regrets the loss of privacy, but is grateful to the Red Cross for providing her with food and shelter.
SONIA MAGOON, Show Low Evacuee: It's pretty comfortable here. Everything I need is here. You know, it's better than sleeping out in the car, not being able to shower, and eat, and so on and so forth.
TOM BEARDEN: She's also worried about the fact that she's likely to go into labor long before she would be allowed to return home. When are you due?
SONIA MAGOON: Today. ( Laughs )
TOM BEARDEN: You nervous about that?
SONIA MAGOON: Yes, I am. Very much.
TOM BEARDEN: What happens if you go into labor here? Are you going to get the medical attention you need?
SONIA MAGOON: Yeah, they have a hospital in town like a mile and a half away, so it's pretty close.
TOM BEARDEN: Show Low resident Craig Haines has other worries.
CRAIG HAINES, Show Low Evacuee: Mother Nature's got it. We don't know if we're going to have homes left, or where we're going to go. Our jobs, are they gone? Who knows? We're just going to have to wait and find out.
TOM BEARDEN: Elaine Szemesi has similar concerns. She's the executive director of the Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce, two more resort towns near Show Low. Both are ghost towns, completely evacuated. The streets are empty at a time when the population should have swollen ten-fold with summer visitors.
ELAINE SZEMESI, Executive Director, Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce: It's going to have a big impact on our economy. We're getting ready for a huge festival season, the ski lifts are open, you know, taking people up and down during the summer. This is when we need our economy.
TOM BEARDEN: The dome in Eagar is just one of several large shelters in the area. A high school gym in Holbrook, about 50 miles north of Show Low, has also been pressed into service. Kim Christensen fled his home over the weekend, a house he bought just two months ago. He was feeling the effects of the smoke that has blanketed the area for more than a week.
KIM CHRISTENSEN, Show Low Evacuee: My head was throbbing, and my stomach was hurting, and I didn't want to eat, and I laid down in the air conditioning, near close to it where it brings in good air, and now, I'm starting to feel recovered, now, as long as I don't go out there.
TOM BEARDEN: Christensen was also angry. Like a number of state and federal politicians, he blames the fires on environmentalists.
KIM CHRISTENSEN: The environmentalists shouldn't get in our lives to keep us from logging it. I'd rather see the loggers come in 20 years ago and log this. We wouldn't have this fire. And it... I'm having a hard time dealing with that.
TOM BEARDEN: Environmental organizations deny opposing measures that might have mitigated the fires. Evacuees James McFloy and his wife Ila come to the shelter each day for information. McFloy is retired, having spent 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service. He says the problem with the forests is far more complicated than environmental opposition to timber sales.
JAMES McFLOY, Show Low Evacuee: It's a much larger, more complex story that has to be discussed when emotions settle down, when the fires are out and the smoke clears, because there's too much emotion and too much misinformation.
TOM BEARDEN: One thing McFloy is sure of: Preventing future conflagrations will be costly.
JAMES McFLOY: There has to be more money spent by the federal government doing basic forestry: Thinning, fuel removal, this sort of thing. And there hasn't been the funds adequate to the task.
SPOKESPERSON: One, two, three...
TOM BEARDEN: There is little relief in sight for the evacuees. No one can give them any estimate on when they might be able to go home. And for some, the shock of being displaced was still strong, even nearly a week after being forced to flee.
KIM CHRISTENSEN: I do miss my bedroom.
TOM BEARDEN: It's got to be tough to be here and lose your privacy.
KIM CHRISTENSEN: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It really is. This is the first time this has ever happened in my life. I see it on TV, you know, the last 30 years, earthquakes, floods, now we got fires. (Laughs) I'm just shocked. I didn't think it'd be like this.
CRAIG HAINES: Who would have thought, a little fire miles away, 25 miles out, causes all this? And then, of course, there was the Denver fire. Jeez, who would have thought that's going to happen?
TOM BEARDEN: As firefighters continue to set back burns, the Forest Service is opening three more command centers and will have almost 6,000 firefighters in place by next week trying to corral this nearly 400,000 acre fire that remains almost completely out of control.