PAYSON, Ariz. – The two wildfires that became one monstrous blaze raging through Arizona this week were alike in at least one basic way: They were started by people.
That has been a recurring theme in this young yet destructive fire season across the West.
Despite warnings of crackling dry conditions, bans on campfires and canceled fireworks shows, most of the major wildfires in the West this year have been man- — or woman- — made.
In Arizona alone, 1,198 out of a total of 1,317 fires were manmade, according to the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, which tracks fires in Arizona and New Mexico.
"If we factored out the human-caused fires, what we would have had was a terribly dry, windy spring," spokeswoman Mary Zabinski said.
Around the West, there have been intentional fires and accidental fires, fires started by discarded cigarette butts or by biologists shooting off firecracker shells to scare moose. One of the biggest blazes in Arizona has been blamed on a lost hiker who said she lit a fire to signal for help.
In the West, 60 percent to 70 percent of wildfires usually are begun by lightning or other natural causes, according to Pat Durland, a fire prevention specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center. But the proportions have changed this year because of the severe drought.
"When it's this dry, a person pulling his car off the road onto grass can start a fire. All it takes is one spark," said Mark Chavez of New Mexico's Cibola National Forest, where yellow caution tape is wrapped around barbecue grills to keep the public's hands off.
In New Mexico, 718 of 998 fires this year have been started by people. Nine of Colorado's last 15 major fires were manmade. That includes the blaze near Durango, which may have been started by a cigarette butt, and the now-notorious blaze outside Denver, which investigators say was deliberately started by U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton.
The smaller of the two Arizona fires that joined this week was apparently begun by the lost hiker, Valinda Jo Elliott of Phoenix. Authorities said the second fire also was manmade, though they are still investigating and said they have no suspects.
Evacuees and others are furious at Elliott.
"She's gone, I hear," said Heber-Overgaard Chamber of Commerce President Dave Neff. "She better never show her face."
"There are people here who feel she should be strung up by her heels," B.J. Gillingham, one of Arizona's 30,000 fire evacuees, said from a shelter. "Why do you think these people are all angry? She panicked and did a stupid thing. Well I can show you some people here who are panicked now."
The hiker's mother, Rhonda Whitley, defended her. "I'm really bitter that people think she set that forest fire on purpose. She was out there just hiking and stuff," she told the Arizona Republic. "And it was to save her life."
Over the Memorial Day weekend, rangers in Arizona wrote more than 140 tickets to people for violating the no-burning rules. One camper actually used a paper sign reading "No fires" to start his barbecue.
If the official response has been stringent, public reaction has been scathing.
In Black Forest, Colo., irate homeowners are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever has started several small fires there. The situation is so tense, Black Forest Fire Rescue Chief David Ury took to the radio to urge residents against vigilante action.
Despite his warning, some residents said they would not hesitate to act if they saw anyone starting a fire on their property.
"I'd shoot them in the kneecaps or something," Tony Stek said.