A front-row seat at the edge of an inferno

Just a year after the worst blaze in Arizona history, a new wildfire tests one town's resolve.

With the season's first big wildfire consuming forest only seven miles away, Cora Ronquillo still sits calmly amid porcelain knick-knacks on the porch of the Country Cottage antique store.

From here, she can see flames leaping over a low mountain ridge, piercing a huge blanket of black smoke that hangs over the town. But like many of the 3,500 residents of Oracle, an independent-minded community 35 miles north of Tucson, Ms. Ronquillo isn't overly unnerved.

"We're a kicked-back community, and I don't see anyone getting too worried yet," says the store manager. "My son-in-law is the fire chief, and he says there isn't any chance of the fire reaching us, at least at this point."

As the first forest fires of the season clip at southern Arizona's ponderosa pine and corkbark fir, some of the area's legendary nonchalance is being severely tested.

Coming off the worst fire season in state history - in which more than 500 structures were lost - local residents, even in some of these bohemian retreats, are more aware than usual of the ferocity of uncontrolled flames.

Since June 17, the so-called Aspen fire has consumed more than 19,000 acres, including the small resort community of Summerhaven, near the summit of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Now Oracle, an eclectic desert town of ranchers, artists, and commuters nestled at the base of the range, has been treated to a front-row seat for the latest intrusive inferno.

Oracle's proximity to the fire placed it at risk earlier this week, when strong winds pulled flames down the slopes and closer to town. More than 900 firefighters are now trying to stem its advance.

One factor working in their favor: Fires last year burned off much of the brush standing between Oracle and the mountains. Still, says Gerry Ingel, a US Forest Service official, no one is safe with such an aggressive fire. Only a day before, the "fire was 10 miles from Oracle," he notes.

Early smoke signals across the West

Oracle residents are not the only ones adjusting uncomfortably to an early start to the fire season. In New Mexico, firefighters Tuesday battled a blaze that had consumed several hundred acres of private ranch land near Fort Union National Monument. Crews were also trying to contain lightning-sparked conflagrations in the Gila National Forest.

In Alaska, a fire that has consumed more than 37,000 acres southeast of Fairbanks continued to burn south Monday toward cabins on the lower Goodpaster River.

In Oracle, cars and trucks are parked all along the streets as residents and officials monitor the nearby blaze. Others gather at the local Post Office, where Cathy Lutz tapes the latest updates to the front door. She smiles, but is uneasier than most. Dealing with seasonal fires "is just the risk we have to take living here," she says. "But I am worried."

Fred Terry, another local resident, glances at a new map, pulling his straw hat down to block the sun peeking through the smoke. He says such fiery maelstroms "are inevitable after 1,500 years of drought. When you live in a wooded area, this can happen."

Across the road, Frank Parker, owner of Pat and Mike's Drive-Inn, stands behind the register flanked by rows of liquor bottles. Despite the nearing flames, no one has yet left town, he says. And officials "can't force us to leave anyway. They can only ask us to leave, and they haven't done that yet."

Others aren't so defiant. At an artists' community called Rancho Linda Vista, visiting painter Rebecca Johnson has had enough worrying and waiting. Now she's packing her minivan for a quick trip home to Mendocino County, Calif. She's been on the phone all day, seeking the latest updates from federal officials as clouds of smoke the color of a bruise float overhead.

"The fire is coming closer," she says. "Personally, I'm on red alert. And I'm on my way out the door right now."

Despite the blasé attitudes of some, Ms. Johnson says plenty of people are more worried than they'll admit. In the grocery store, "I saw people getting boxes to pack things. One lady told me that she dug out many of the trees around her house."

Natural threat to an earth under glass

Nor are people just worried about their homes. At the Columbia University Biosphere 2 Center, just outside of town, administrators are watching the surround hillsides - and keeping students updated. The $250 million research facility includes a 3.15-acre terrarium designed to recreate the Earth's ecological systems, and typically hosts about 60 researchers and students.

The fire is "five miles from us as the crow flies," says Christopher Bannon, the Biosphere's chief of staff. He's standing on a broad lawn behind the administration offices as the fire skips along a nearby mountainside, separated from the research center only by a wash and cactus-lined slopes.

But the center's proximity has proven useful as an unofficial depot for firefighting crews. Tractor trailers are rolling up with "dip" pads, where helicopters can fill water tanks. "We've also donated an abandoned airstrip for them to use," says Mr. Bannon.

As the fire spreads, Bannon admits to being "consumed" with monitoring its progress. But the former Navy pilot is working to separate the facts from the rumors as he passes on information to others.

"It is very humbling," he says of the fire. "Nature's totally in control here."

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