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Wildfires Continue To Burn In Arizona

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Wildfires continue to burn across Arizona. The biggest, called the Wallow Fire, has grown to 640 square miles. That's more than half the size of Rhode Island. Firefighters in eastern Arizona say winds have died down a bit, but the blaze is about five percent contained.

NPR's Jeff Brady has been talking with people affected by the fire in Greer, Arizona.

JEFF BRADY: The past couple of days have been a roller coaster for Doug Sandahl. First word would come that the fire was moving away from the small town of Greer, where he owns a resort. Then the fire would change directions, and he'd get bad news. Wednesday night, Sandahl says the situation looked terrible.

Mr. DOUG SANDAHL (Resort Owner): I was under the impression that the entire town was just going to be consumed by flames.

BRADY: Ultimately, it wasn't that bad, but fire did roar through Greer, destroying 22 homes. The terrain in this part of Arizona isn't the desert most people imagine, it's mile after mile of beautiful pine forests, high up in the mountains.

It's a special place for Harriet Barker. Her family has spent summers in Greer for six decades, and now she lives there full-time. We reached her on a mobile phone outside Phoenix, where she evacuated to. Barker says firefighters were able to save her home.

Ms. HARRIET BARKER: They saw that my house was being lost and started removing all of the siding from the side of my house that was burning, and they took it all off to save my house.

BRADY: Barker says the building is damaged but still standing. She's waiting for authorities to lift a mandatory evacuation so she can go back in and see first-hand what's happened to her community. For now, she's left to imagine what the surrounding forests look like.

Ms. BARKER: It's where I've chosen to live, very secluded, and it's destroyed, you know. It feels like a death.

BRADY: But while it feels like a death now, Barker says she wants to be part of her community's rebirth.

Ms. BARKER: My house is there, and I'm going to go back, and we'll plant trees. We'll take care of Greer.

BRADY: When she'll be allowed to go back in is an open question. Winds have died down, allowing crews to get ahead of the flames. They're burning dry grass and brush in the fire's path, hoping that will slow it down.

Jim Whittington is a spokesman for the more than 3,000 people fighting the blaze. He says the weather forecast for Saturday looks bad: more wind, hot temperatures and low humidity.

Mr. JIM WHITTINGTON: Everybody in camp recognizes that we have until 10:00, 11:00 tomorrow morning before these winds start to pick up, and we've got to get everything that we possibly can done by then.

BRADY: Authorities say this is the second-largest wildfire in Arizona's history, and it was human-caused. There's been mention that perhaps a campfire was responsible, but investigators will only say they're still looking into what started the Wallow Fire.

Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.