Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Wallow Fire

For those who are wondering how the Wallow Fire is affecting our area, here is a little update.

The Wallow Fire at night. (I found most of these photos on news websites.)

As far as I can tell, the northwest edge of the Wallow Fire is something less than 30 miles from our community. There's nothing much left but forest between the blaze and us. Highway 260, between Eagar and Pinetop (where our car hit an elk 2 weeks ago), has been closed. However, the wind has been consistently blowing toward the northeast (we are northwest of the fire), so the fire's spread in our direction has been limited.

In fact, our town of Pinetop-Lakeside is the official location of the evacuation center for the 10,000 or so people who've been evacuated from the small White Mountain towns of Alpine, Hannagan Meadow, Nutrioso, Blue River, Greer, Sunrise, and Springerville-Eagar. That means officials don't see our community as being in any immediate danger from the fire.  (Greens Peak and Hidden Meadows are under pre-evacuation alert, as is Luna, New Mexico.  The fire is currently less than a mile from crossing the border into New Mexico.)

The highway through town is more congested than usual, with emergency vehicles, fire trucks, and evacuees sharing the road with locals and the usual summer vacationers. There is a different feeling in the air that can't quite be described.

This little evacuee boy is sitting in the hall just outside my classroom.

The evacuation center is located at the school where I teach, actually in the same building where my classroom is located. When I drove past the school today on my way to the bank, the parking spaces in front of my building were taken up with official vehicles and broadcasting vans from Phoenix channels 3 and 5. The larger parking lot in front of the main building was filled with RVs and fifth-wheel trailers where some evacuees were staying. Others are staying on cots in the school's gyms.

This all brings back powerful memories of our family being evacuated for 8 days during 2002's Rodeo-Chediski Fire. It almost seems surreal that our lives are going on pretty much as normal here while all around us are folks who've been uprooted and face an uncertain future. I remember clearly how that felt.

8 June 2008 - I took this picture of the Wallow Fire's smoke
from a ridge less than a mile from our house on Wednesday.

The Wallow Fire has been burning since May 29th. That's 13 days now. During that time, we've only had 3 days in which the smoke from the fire has descended heavily upon our town. Last Saturday and Sunday, and then again today, we awoke to the strong smell of wood smoke and a thick haze in the air. It's troubling people with respiratory problems; others are suffering allergies, scratchy throats, and burning eyes. My eyes have been irritated, but not horribly so.

Smoke over the Wallow Fire.

We've been lucky, though, because the wind has been consistently blowing northeast, instead of northwest toward us. While these winds of 30-60 miles per hour have made it a nightmare for the firefighters to battle the blaze, it has swept the smoke away from our area most of this week. On the other hand, it has negatively affected air quality in cities from New Mexico to Iowa.

It's ironic, or maybe it's poetic, that the people of Springerville-Eagar took care of us, the people of Pinetop-Lakeside, when we were displaced in 2002, and now it's our community's turn to step up and serve them in their time of need. Many of my friends are involved in organizing donations for the evacuees, and many others are volunteering their time to help out at the evacuation center and other areas.

Big Lake is one of many places Mark and I often took our kids
for picnics, fishing, and hiking over the years.

In the long term, we wonder how we will be affected. Many of the recreational areas we have loved during our 21 years here are gone or forever changed. The Young Women's camp near Alpine is gone. The camp near Greer where our Boy Scouts hold their Klondike campout in the snow every January is likely gone, as well.

Apache-Sitgreaves Forest burns.

For the first 12 days of the Wallow Fire, there was zero percent containment. By last night, firefighters were finally able to contain 5% of the northeast rim of the blaze. Tonight that number was increased to 6%. Today was a good day, with winds of 7 mph or less. Unfortunately, heavy winds are predicted to return for the next 3 days. Between the mountainous terrain and the high winds and low humidity we've been experiencing, it will be a slow, difficult battle.

A cabin in Hannagan Meadow was in the fire's path.

Where it stands now:
   * There are 4,422 personnel involved in fighting this fire, including 26 hotshot crews and 76 hand crews.
   * About 410,000 acres have been burned so far, making it the second-worst fire in Arizona history (although it may surpass the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which burned about 470,000 acres).
   * 29 homes have been destroyed and 5 damaged, most of them in Greer, but more than 2,700 are endangered. (400 homes were destroyed in the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.)

A map of the burned area so far. Is it just me, or does it look like
a giant fire monster stomped his foot down on our mountain?

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the brave men and women who are battling this blaze, the people who are working around the clock to serve those in need, and the evacuees who are waiting to see what the future holds. May they each be guided, strengthened and comforted.

No comments: