Praying For Rain

To see what was left of her Arizona hometown, Cher Hazen boarded a Red Cross bus that rolled into tiny Palmdale. As she peered through a window, Hazen looked upon a nightmare of ash. On the spot where her family's home stood, all that remained was the front porch. "It really hurts," said Hazen, a single mother of four.

Like 30,000 other people chased from their homes by the monstrous wildfire still devouring the high country, Hazen had tried to take what she could. But some things were forgotten--a baby book, a family history. Just before they fled, the family's frightened cat had jumped from the arms of Hazen's daughter and run outside. "I looked for her today," Hazen said of the cat. "But I knew there wasn't much hope."

So far, wildfire has swallowed about 2.5 million acres in the West, more than twice the usual toll for this time of the season. In most years the worst flames come in August. But firefighters have been battling blazes since April. More than 420 homes have been destroyed. The speed of the fire astonished Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, who toured the peripheries last week. Driving by a house near Durango, Colo., with a for sale sign in front, Allbaugh told an aide, "They better hurry up." Twenty minutes later Allbaugh drove by the house again. "And it was gone," he recalled. "That's how fast this thing is."

The blazes that have terrified Americans in the forested West this summer will surely trigger a re-examination of the nation's fire policy. Drought and heat have been culprits. But many federal officials blame poor management. Rick Cables, head of the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Forest Service, estimates that 250 million acres of forest land are "ecologically unhealthy," as underbrush has been allowed to grow too dense, serving as fuel for fires.

Throughout history, natural fires periodically cleaned out the underbrush. But the federal government has aggressively suppressed fires for more than a half century. Cables says it is now time to hire logging companies to thin forests to "mimic" nature's work. Environmentalists say that amounts to a giveaway of American treasure to private interests. The problem, they say, stems largely from too much private development in the wilderness.

Whatever the answer, it has come too late for Hazen and her family. In a domed high-school football stadium in Eagar, where 700 evacuees have been staying, people spend their hours in purgatory, worrying that there is no place like home.