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 for altering the natural cycle of lightning-sparked fires that once cleared the forest floor.
Either way, forests across the West that once had 50 trees per acre now have hundreds, sometimes thousands, and much of 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.
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"I think what is happening proves the debate," said state Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from rural Snowflake.
In the past, a 30-square-mile fire was considered huge. "And it used to be the loggers got right on it. Never in the past have you had these huge fires," she said. Today, it's not uncommon for fires to exceed 150 square miles.
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.
An extremely dry late winter and spring contributed to the fire conditions, drying out the forest and allowing fierce winds to carry the flames into the treetops, where they spread by miles each day.
More than 525 square miles have been blackened, and thousands of people have been forced to flee from mountain resort communities and two large towns at the forest's edge.
Many in Arizona blame the legal battles that have erupted over old-growth logging that threatened endangered species. Since those disputes prevented regular logging that would have thinned the number of trees, the forests became overgrown, they say.
Environmentalists insist that theory is just a scare tactic.