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Huge Arizona Fire Destroys Homes, Forces Thousands of Evacuations

Authorities here were worried Friday that a massive fire, which has already expanded to 120,000 acres and consumed at least 12 homes, will continue its course through several towns in the eastern part of the state.

As many as 8,000 people have been evacuated from four communities about 10 miles west of Show Low, a town 125 miles northeast of Phoenix. The 400 residents of Pinedale, where the homes burned down, were among those told to leave their homes. An additional 11,000 people in and around Show Low were told to be ready to evacuate.

Temperatures in the 80s, low humidity and winds swirling to as high as 45 mph have helped the fire spread. Officials are now concerned that the fire could merge with a fast-moving, 14,500-acre blaze farther west, creating an even bigger inferno.

"The forest is burning like you're pouring gasoline on it, and the wind is like taking a blowtorch to it," fire information officer Jim Paxon said in Show Low. "This fire's going to rear its ugly head again and grow."

He added: "It's a situation that shouts, 'Watch out!' It raises the hair on your skin."

Paxon also said about 100 homeowners in Linden and Clay Springs, two of the towns where evacuations were ordered, have refused to leave.

"We will not put firefighters at risk to go in and get them out," he said. "When houses burn, it's too late to try to escape. Those people are going to be pretty well pinned in."

Besides the 12 homes destroyed, flames damaged several other homes and damaged or destroyed about 20 other buildings, Paxon said. Officials hoped to give Pinedale closer scrutiny on Friday.

"The good news is, it was not the 70 or 80 we were anticipating," Paxon said, adding that there had been no injuries or fatalities.

Firefighter Alma Leithead said he had seen mobile homes that appeared to be melted and the leftover foundations in the area of the blaze. "It's horrible to see," he said.

Navajo County Manager Eddie Koury described Pinedale as a generally upscale community, with some large homes on lots sprawled over several acres. Besides year-round residents, numerous people from the Phoenix area also have second homes in Pinedale, Koury said.

Firefighters were digging lines on the east flank near the bottom of the 20-mile-long oblong fire and working toward the head, which was at Pinedale and near two other communities.

Officials also evacuated about 4,000 residents from Heber-Overgaard, another town west of Show Low, because of the 14,500-acre fire. That blaze was started by a lost hiker, who was trying to draw the attention of a news helicopter. Authorities did not immediately say whether the women, who was rescued by the chopper, would face charges.

Paxon said the middles of the new fire and the Rodeo fire were about eight miles apart and could merge.

Area residents who had been evacuated followed the news with trepidation.

Clay Springs residents Jim Ward and his wife, Dorothy, who fled to an evacuation center in Eagar after grabbing their jewelry, photos and important papers, said they had built their home from scratch.

"I've got a lot of sweat and blood in it," he said. "We can kind of just kiss it away, what's left behind, if this hits us. We'll have a burned out foundation just like everybody else."

Lana Rexroat, a mother of four from Clay Springs who is expecting a child in six weeks, sobbed after hearing the fire was nearing her town.

"I want to have a home to take my baby to in six weeks," she said.

The Rodeo fire began Tuesday about a quarter-mile northeast of the White Mountain community of Cibeque. Authorities didn't know how the fire started but noted that without lightning in the area it had to be caused by man.

The FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs and White Mountain Apache tribal police are investigating the fire's cause, said Barry Welch, deputy regional director for the BIA's regional office.

In Colorado on Thursday, Forest Service employee Terry Barton, 38, pleaded innocent to federal charges she deliberately set a wildfire southwest of Denver.

Colorado crews, meanwhile, benefited from rain and cooler weather while fighting the 136,000-acre blaze. Fire information officer Melissa Petersen said Thursday that 79 homes had succumbed to the wildfire. Some of the 8,900 people forced to evacuate have been allowed to return.

In southwestern Colorado, two other large fires continued to rage out of control after forcing the evacuation of hundreds.

Crews near Durango, Colo., fought a fire that jumped containment lines and grew by 4,000 acres to 58,000 acres Thursday. About 33 homes have been destroyed and 400 more were threatened.

"This is a very dangerous situation," Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., said after touring the area by helicopter.

On the first day of summer, the wildfire situation across the West already appeared desperate, in large part because of severe drought. The government's National Interagency Fire Center said 1.99 million acres have burned across the country so far this year – double the 10-year average – and fire officials said their resources were stretched thin.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.