SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. - A raging wildfire that could become the largest in Arizona history is rekindling the blame game surrounding ponderosa pine forests that have become dangerously overgrown after a century of fire suppression.
Some critics put the responsibility on environmentalists for lawsuits that have cut back on logging. Others blame overzealous firefighters who have altered the natural cycle of lightning-sparked fires that once cleared the forest floor.
Either way, forests that once had 50 trees per acre now have hundreds, sometimes thousands, and the landscape is choked with tinder-dry brush.
The density of the growth has fueled immense conflagrations in recent years like the 525-square-mile blaze now burning in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest northeast of Phoenix.
"I think what is happening proves the debate," said State Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from rural Snowflake.
In the past, a 20,000-acre fire was considered huge. "And it used to be the loggers got right on it," she said. "Never in the past have you had these huge fires."
Today, it's not uncommon to have fires that exceed 100,000 acres.
On Thursday, the huge blaze known as the Wallow Fire was still burning out of control. After reportedly being sparked by a campfire, it has become the second-largest wildfire in state history and is still growing.
The fire conditions were made worse by an extremely dry late winter and spring that dried out the forest, allowing fierce winds to carry the flames into the treetops, where they spread by miles each day.
More than 336,000 acres have been blackened, and thousands of people have been forced to flee from mountain resort communities and two large towns.
The fire had swallowed up 11 structures before destroying at least six homes overnight in the mountain-resort community of Greer.
Power lines that supply much of West Texas and southern New Mexico are in jeopardy from the fire.
Winds were expected to shift and could drive the flames into New Mexico, where residents of the small town of Luna were preparing to evacuate.