"Monster" wildfires continued to vex mountain communities in Colorado and Arizona Sunday, while the rest of the American West braced for what it hoped wouldn't come a summer of infernos.
Already, wildfires this year have charred more than 2.2 million acres across the region the most since 1996. At least 17 major fires are burning in seven Western states.
Particularly unnerving to authorities this year is the number of fires started by humans. Normally, lightning accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all forest fires in the West. This year, some of the biggest fires notably the Hayman in Colorado and two conflagrations in eastern Arizona that have now merged have been attributed to human error or arson.
This trend, coming in a year of unusually dry conditions, when more people are living in wildland areas than ever before, is forcing states to act early to try to prevent manmade fires.
Wyoming has already banned fireworks and open campfires on state lands for the summer. Colorado has gone a step further: It is prohibiting all open fires, period, with the exception of charcoal barbecues in the backyard.
A growing number of cities across the West including Colorado Springs and Boulder, Colo., as well as Prescott, Ariz. are canceling their July 4 fireworks displays and putting on laser shows instead.
"Of the major fires we're seeing, it's a little unusual that we are seeing this many human-caused fires," says David Howell of the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, a federal clearinghouse for fires nationwide. "We're trying to get fire prevention messages out there."
The inauspicious start to the summer has also been costly: At least seven firefighters have perished in tragedies in the past week four in a traffic accident in Colorado and three in an earlier air-tanker crash in California. More than 1,235 structures have been destroyed. Federal authorities put the damage at about $170 million so far.
The nation's No. 1 firefighting priority at the moment is the Rodeo-Chediski blaze in eastern Arizona. It represents the merger of two fires that, by early yesterday, were bearing down as one 50-mile-wall on the town of Show Low.
It was advancing through paper-dry forest with the intensity of a Bessemer furnace. More than 235,000 acres an area one-third the size of Rhode Island have burned just since Thursday. Some 40,000 people have been evacuated, mainly in small towns such as Show Low, Pinedale, and Clay Springs about 120 miles northeast of Phoenix.
In tiny Linden, firefighters wrapped houses in fireproof material and sprayed them with foam to try to save structures.
"It's a monster," says Bobby Smith, who had been staying in Show Low after having already been evacuated from Pinedale. "It's unbelievable what a big fire can do."
The area, popular with hikers and Phoenix-area residents escaping the desert heat, is covered with pinon, juniper, and pine trees made explosively dry by several years of drought.
"The fire crews are in a more reactive mode today, instead of proactive," says Shanea Ward, spokeswoman in Show Low for the Southwest Area Wildland Fire Operations. "They're just reacting to the fire's behavior."
The largest Arizona fire was thought to be human-caused, though authorities are still uncertain whether it was an accident or arson. The other major fire was started by a lost hiker signaling for help.
In Colorado, a judge on Friday set an Aug. 26 trial date for Terry Barton, an 18-year veteran of the US Forest Service accused of starting the big Hayman fire south of Denver. Ms. Barton faces up to 20 years in prison and more than a half a million dollars in fines if convicted.
Cool weather yesterday helped firefighters battling the blaze she is accused of setting. The 137,000-acre blaze, which is more than 60 percent contained, has destroyed at least 114 homes and about 420 other buildings.
"Mother Nature actually gave us a helping hand today. We weren't expecting it, but she came through for us," says fire information officer Steve Fegin.
Fire crews have not been so fortunate in the southwest corner of the state. An erratic, wind-driven fire near Durango has burned more than 68,000 acres and destroyed at least 45 homes.
"I've never seen a fire so unpredictable before," says firefighter Mike Achey.
Residents of 18 subdivisions had earlier been ordered to evacuate their homes, but five of those subdivisions were reopening by the end of the weekend.
With all the wildfires breaking out so early, authorities are concerned about the availability of resources manpower and money for the rest of the summer. So far, the military, usually the last line of defense in a hot summer, has not been called out, but officials say that could come.
"There's a pretty good consensus that it's going to be a busy summer," says Mr. Howell.
Wire service material and contributions from Tim Vanderpool in Arizona were used in this report.