Arizona Wildfire Evacuees Return Home

Arizona Wildfire Evacuees Return Home

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WHITERIVER, Ariz. (AP) -- Thousands of residents of an American Indian reservation charred by wildfire began returning to their homes Friday, two days after the flames nearly reached their community.

About 5,000 people were forced Monday to evacuate Whiteriver, on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona, as the lightning-sparked fire approached the town. It came within a quarter-mile of some homes before firefighters ringed the blaze with firebreaks. No homes were damaged.

A few cars began trickling into deserted subdivisions in Whiteriver shortly before the evacuation order was lifted, with the pace picking up as the morning wore on.

"We're so thankful to God that our house is still standing," said Ellen Stewart, 69, a missionary who spent Friday morning unloading a mattress, blankets and other items from her station wagon.

In a nearby subdivision, Fred Naranjo, 21, and his wife, Netanya Johnson, 20, were looking over their own home.

"I missed being home, a home-cooked meal," said Naranjo, who was in New Mexico when the evacuations were ordered and was unable to go home to retrieve anything.

Although they have a line around the more than 20,600-acre blaze, firefighters won't consider it officially contained until there is enough rainfall to cool the flames, firefighters spokesman Wendell Peacock said.

"We're pretty confident the fire will stay within the perimeter," said Larry Humphrey, commander of the firefighting team.

The blaze was among about 40 large, active wildfires burning around the West on Friday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

A lightning-caused wildfire in Southern California destroyed several structures in a sparsely populated region of steep, brush-covered hills about 60 miles northeast of San Diego, officials said Friday. It continued to threaten about 50 homes and 50 other structures and was 17 percent contained Friday.

The 12,900-acre fire destroyed a building and several small structures at a research station operated by San Diego State University, as well as two mobile homes used as offices, California Department of Forestry spokeswoman Lora Lowes said. The fire also destroyed five tents and a storage container at a summer camp, she said.

In Washington state, two brush fires flared near a subdivision in suburban Seattle, and nearby residents were told to be ready to evacuate, fire and police officials said. No evacuations were ordered, and firefighters had the upper hand by Friday evening.

Firefighters in Wyoming were trying to contain fires in three corners of the state, including three fires in Yellowstone National Park. Only one trail in the park had been closed Friday, but officials have banned smoking and backcountry campfires until further notice.

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado has been closed since Tuesday because of a fire reported at 2,000 acres Friday. It was not threatening any structures or ruins.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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