Arizona's biggest wildfires

Arizona's biggest wildfires

Credit: MGN Online

Arizona's biggest wildfires


by Catherine Holland

Posted on June 6, 2011 at 7:58 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 5:02 AM

STATEWIDE, Ariz. -- At more than 467,000 acres, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 was -- until Tuesday, June 14 -- the largest wildfire Arizona has ever seen.

On Tuesday, June 14, the Wallow Fire exceeded that massive acreage and was still growing, taking over the No. 1 spot in Arizona's wildfire history.

While the monster flames of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire threatened Show Low, the town did not burn.

>>> Click for map showing locations of Arizona's five largest wildfires

The Rodeo-Chediski Fire started as two separate fires. The Rodeo Fire was started by an arsonist on June 18. The Chediski Fire was reported on June 20. That one was started by a stranded motorist who reportedly was trying signal a news helicopter as is passed overhead.

Crosswinds drove the two fires closer and closer together until they merged on June 23. The wildfire’s progress then slowed, allowing firefighter to start to get a handle on it. By backburning, cutting and slurry bombing, they were able to get 5 percent containment three days later.

The fire was not fully under control until July 7. By then it had destroyed about 400 homes in Pinedale and several other little communities. The fire cost more than $43 million to fight.

Not only is the Rodeo-Chediski Fire Arizona's biggest wildfire, it's one of the worst in U.S. history.

Leonard Gregg, the arsonist who lit the Rodeo fire was sentence to 10 years in prison in 2004. Gregg was a seasonal firefighter. He said he set the fire in hopes of getting work as part of a quick-response fire crew.

Valinda Jo Elliot, the driver who started the Chediski Fire was not criminally charged, much to the dismay of area residents. In 2009, however, a judge ruled that she could face civil suit.

The year after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the much smaller but no less destructive Aspen Fire destroyed large portions of Summerhaven. That fire burned for about a month on Mount Lemmon, which is part of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. When all was said and done, nearly 85,000 acres had burned, along with 340 homes and businesses.

In both the Rodeo-Chediski and Aspen fires, a federal disaster was declared, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assign money and resources to help those affected.

           1. Wallow (current) -- 495,016 acres (773 sq mi), 33% containment 
           2. Rodeo-Chediski (2002) -- 467,000 acres (730.69 sq mi)
           3. Cave Creek Complex (2005) -- 244,000 acres (381.25 sq mi)
           4. Horseshoe Two (current) -- 171,000 acres (267.2 sq mi), 53% containment
           5. Willow (2004) -- 120,000 acres (187.5 sq mi)

Arizona’s second-largest fire -- until the Wallow Fire -- happened in June 2005, three years after the monster Rodeo-Chediski Fire. The Cave Creek Complex Fire was sparked by a lightning strike during a monsoon storm and eventually burning nearly 244,000 acres.

The Wallow Fire surpassed that acreage Tuesday morning, knocking the Cave Creek Complex Fire down to No. 3.

Even as crews worked to protect people and homes from the flames of the Cave Creek Complex Fire, a team of biologists from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rescued an endangered species of fish. That fish population was in danger of suffocating from sediment accumulation due to the fire.

Not only did the Cave Creek Complex Fire destroy the historic Cave Creek Mistress mine, it also badly damaged the largest recorded saguaro cactus in the world. The cactus stood more than 45 feet tall and was 7 feet in diameter. The extensive fire damage caused the huge saguaro to collapse.

Until the Wallow Fire, the Willow Fire was Arizona's third-largest fire. It is now fifth, displaced by both the Wallow Fire and the Horseshoe Two Fire. The Willow Fire burned 120,000 acres southwest of Payson in 2004. Nearly 1,000 firefighters battled the lighting-caused wildfire in the Tonto National Forest's Mazatzal Wilderness Area.

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA's Terra satellite acquired an image of the Willow Fire from space. The burned areas are in dark red; the active fires in red-orange; vegetation in green; and smoke in blue.

The Horseshoe Two Fire in southeastern Arizona grew to 128,000 acres in recent days, making it the fourth-largest wildfire in state history. While it has grown, it did not spread to the north in the Chiricahua National Monument.


Map: Rodeo-Chediski Fire (2002), Wallow Fire (current), Cave Creek Complex Fire (2005),  Willow Fire (2004), Horseshoe Two Fire (current), Aspen Fire (2003)

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