Published July 08, 2002
PHOENIX – After weeks of battling the largest wildfire in Arizona history, firefighters from around the country were being reassigned to other states or sent home as the fire was finally contained Sunday.
About 1,100 firefighters and support staff remained on the fire lines, down from more than 4,400 in late June when the blaze was burning out of control and threatening hundreds of homes, fire spokeswoman Lori Cook said. She said the remaining workers were mopping up smoldering embers.
"There's still work to be done," Cook said. "We're going to be here awhile doing rehab."
The crews were also beginning to restore land that had been scarred by bulldozers and burned clean of foliage that had been holding the soil in place. As they work, the crews are seeding the burned land with native grasses to help mitigate erosion from the coming monsoon rain season.
The massive wildfire started in two locations on June 18 and June 20, and burned across 468,638 acres of eastern Arizona's White Mountains, destroying 467 homes and causing at least $28 million in damage. Authorities put the cost of fighting the fire at $43 million Sunday.
The last of the 30,000 people forced to evacuate nine communities in the fire's path were allowed to return last week.
"When you get home, there's a tremendous amount of adjustment after something like this. You're still exhausted and you don't realize the mental and emotional strain this takes out of you," said Mel Coleman, whose home in Linden survived the fire.
"You just sort of break down emotionally, just knowing that your home is safe, that everything you worked for is still intact," said Coleman, who was evacuated for 11 days. "There's also a feeling of despair, particularly for friends of mine who lost their homes."
The town of Show Low, home to 7,700 people, barely escaped the flames. Linden lost more than 100 homes. Heber-Overgaard lost more than 200.
Both parts of the fire were started by humans. One began when a lost hiker tried to signal for help. Authorities say the other was started intentionally by a part-time firefighter who wanted the money he would get for helping fight it. On June 23, the two blazes merged into a 50-mile-wide wall of flames.
The part-time firefighter, Leonard Gregg, 29, has pleaded innocent to a charge of arson. The hiker has not been charged.
Elsewhere in the West:
— The fire that destroyed 56 homes near Durango, Colo., had burned 73,000 acres but was 85 percent contained by Sunday after several days of light rain. Most evacuees had been allowed to return.
— A blaze in the Gila Wilderness near Silver City, N.M., had grown to 10,800 acres, and firefighters intensified efforts to protect the small community of Willow Creek, about four miles from the flames. Crews got a break during the weekend from rain and decreased wind.
— Cool, cloudy weather in Wyoming helped fire crews battling a 13,900-acre blaze in the Wind River Range, about 10 miles southwest of Fort Washakie. Also in Wyoming, a lightning-caused fire in a remote part of Yellowstone National Park burned 240 acres.
— In the northern Black Hills of South Dakota, a wildfire that burned across more 10,700 acres was declared contained Sunday, eight days after it started. Authorities said all road restrictions and closures in the area would be lifted Monday.