Wildfires Blaze Through Arizona Forests

Firefighters in Eastern Arizona have started to make progress in battling the wildfires that have ripped unchecked through thousands of acres of forest over the past two weeks. Nearly 10,000 residents have fled the fires, which have destroyed at least 29 homes and 35 other buildings in the area. Host Scott Simon gets the latest from Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Firefighters in Eastern Arizona have started to make progress in battling the wildfires that have ripped unchecked through thousands of acres of forests over the past two weeks.

Nearly 10,000 residents have fled the fires which have destroyed at least 29 homes and 35 other buildings in the area. Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ joins us. Thanks very much for being with us, Peter.

PETER O'DOWD: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And of course we heard that alarming phrase early in the week that the fire was, quote, "zero percent contained." What's about today?

ODOWD: Today its at six percent contained. So firefighters are optimistic but they say their hold on that six percent is really pretty tenuous, because winds are going to start picking up again. And so, 40 mile per hour wind gusts, firefighters will be facing that today and they really aren't exactly sure what's going to happen when those red flag conditions come back.

SIMON: Six percent still seems very, very low. Are they optimistic because the trend is just in the right direction?

O'DOWD: Well, they are optimistic because they were able to get any containment whatsoever. This fire has been burning since the 29th of May, and for a long time there was zero containment. I mean the fire is more than 600 square miles right now. So in their point of view, even six percent is a really huge deal because it shows that, you know, this fire can be defeated.

One person I spoke to recently said, you know, basically this weekend we want to keep putting numbers on our side of the score board. Were on the board now with six percent. He said we want to keep holding that line and get that containment into the double digits.

SIMON: And Peter, with the fire of the magnitude that you described, do the firefighters have enough equipment? Do they have enough people?

O'DOWD: Oh, will tell you, the firefighters, there are about 3,000 of them out there right now and they're using helicopters, they're using jets, they're using all manner of equipment to start the fires on the perimeter of this huge blaze in order to contain it. They say they have the equipment that they need but their hours are incredibly long. They're working 12 hour shifts. They start their day at 6 AM. They eat 6,000 calories a day to fuel them through and, you know, they work for 14 days at a time before some of them will see a day off.

SIMON: Peter, what can you tell us about people who had to be evacuated? Are they in a position to go back into their homes? How have they been faring?

O'DOWD: Not quite yet. They're not quite allowed to go home. There was some talk that hopefully this weekend some people would be allowed back into the towns. But right now the fire crews say, you know, if we let them back in and the winds pick up today or this weekend and they have to be evacuated again, then it's really disheartening and it also could be dangerous. So until these winds settle down we expect the people to stay into those evacuation centers or wherever they happen to be evacuated. They're pretty pragmatic about it. You know, they understand that firefighters are working as hard as they can. They're also pretty anxious to see what their property looks like.

SIMON: Peter O'Dowd of KJZZ, reporting on the Eastern Arizona fires.

Thanks so much.

O'DOWD: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And youre listening to NPR News.

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