BIG LAKE – Gov. Jan Brewer was on hand when Big Lake General Store and its surroundings reopened Wednesday, proclaiming that the area burned by the largest recorded wildfire in Arizona history is ready for visitors.
“It’s open for business and people need to get up here,” she said.
The store and the surrounding Big Lake Recreation Area of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest were closed in June due to the Wallow Fire, which burned across more than a half million acres and destroyed 32 homes, four commercial properties and dozens of outbuildings.
Brewer said the area retains its natural beauty and its businesses.
Rick and Clotilda Law, third-generation owners of the Big Lake General Store, said their biggest season of the year was lost.
“Something like this, it just takes a big toll,” Rick Law said. “We are trying to let people know we are still here.”
With nearly two months remaining in the White Mountains’ recreation season, store owners like the Laws are hoping people will once again visit the area.
Pat Bruneau, who attended the event to represent businesses in nearby Greer, said the fire hurt businesses well beyond Big Lake.
“We’ve all suffered, and this is a difficult time for everybody,” Bruneau said. “(Now) we are open for business, and we are green.”
Brewer later talked with residents in Springerville, 25 miles north of Big Lake.
“We will stand with these businesses and people impacted by those fires and flooding,” Brewer told the group.
She also called for changes in the way the U.S. Forest Service handles Arizona’s lands.
If the money spent fighting the Wallow Fire had been applied to thinning the forest through harvesting timber, she said, hundreds of thousands of acres would have been spared.
Brewer added that she visited a site Wednesday where inmate fire crews were cleaning state trust land damaged by fire. Impressed by the crews’ efficiency,
she said, “I wish that the United State Forest Service salvage efforts could move as quickly.”
According to Marcia L. Pfleiderer, the district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s Springerville region, the agency has completed 99 percent of its Burned Area Emergency Response efforts, which include mulching, seeding, erosion control and removing trees that pose dangers.
“We are in this for the long haul,” said Pfleiderer, who started in the position in June.
To Brewer, who visited two burn areas and met with residents and business owners, a new forest-management strategy is needed – and soon.
“We don’t have time to wait,” Brewer said. “If we don’t do what is right then Mother Nature will.”
Brandon Quester is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.