Arizona wildfire swallows over 600 square miles

PHOENIX Wed Jun 8, 2011 6:27pm EDT

1 of 22. Smoke from the Wallow Wildfire surround trees in Eagar, Arizona June 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - A wildfire believed sparked by inattentive campers blazed unchecked for an 11th day in eastern Arizona on Wednesday, leaving at least 600 square miles of pine forest blackened and menacing several mountain towns near the New Mexico border.

The monster blaze, ranking as Arizona's second-largest wildfire on record, has chased up to 2,000 people from homes in and around two communities in immediate danger, Eager and Springerville, since Tuesday, fire officials reported.

Both towns were on alert for possible further evacuations, along with the small New Mexican town of Luna just over the eastern Arizona border.

"I'm trying to protect my belongings as best I can," said Wayne Lutz, 68, an Eager resident who lives about 8 miles from the fire's edge and spent the day clearing brush and dampening his property with sprinklers.

"But if push comes to shove, I can be out of here in 10 minutes," he told Reuters by telephone. "The house is insured. My life is not."

As many as 5,000 residents in all have been displaced in the White Mountains region, a popular vacation destination for Arizonans seeking to escape the summer heat, since the fire erupted on May 29.

One of them is Jeanne Udall, 66, a longtime area resident who packed up her belongings and fled her log cabin Tuesday when evacuation orders came, seeking refuge with her husband and daughters in a trailer home by the Springerville airport.

"We prepared like we weren't going to be coming back," she said. "There's nothing we can do. It's out of our control and into the Lord's hands."

While the wind-whipped blaze remained at zero containment, no injuries have been reported and known property losses were limited so far to 11 structures, including at least four cabins, fire officials said.

New Mexico state officials were also readying for the blaze, which they said was about a mile from the border on Wednesday, to cross into their state soon.

Some residents in New Mexico already could see the approaching menace. Santa Fe resident John Fogarty said he saw a wall of smoke coming toward him from the west as he was hiking in the mountains late Monday afternoon.

"It was a 30,000 foot high wall of dark smoke, rolling over the mountains and heading directly toward Santa Fe. The sun was bright red and glowing. It was like Armageddon," he said. Santa Fe is more than 250 miles northeast of the fire.

Overnight Tuesday and early Wednesday, fire crews set backfires in a bid to draw the flames away from threatened homes, and bulldozers cut a 10-mile-long buffer zone south of Eager between the leading edge of the blaze and populated areas. Some 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze.

Winds fanning the fire through tinder-dry ponderosa pines were expected to intensify again Wednesday afternoon, with gusts forecast to reach 42 miles per hour.

"This fire is very large and very intense, and we're still just trying to get a handle on it," Brenyn Lohmoelder, a fire information officer, told Reuters.

One of the biggest challenges facing fire crews was the danger of additional spot fires ignited by burning embers carried aloft by high winds, Jim Whittington, a fire official, said at a news conference.

As of Wednesday morning, fire officials said the so-called Wallow Fire had charred up to 389,000 acres, or well over 600 square miles, in and around the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest.

Smoke from the conflagration, which fire officials suspect may have started from an unattended campfire, has drifted across several states as far east as Iowa.

The state's largest wild lands blaze on record, the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona, blackened almost 469,000 acres in 2002 before it was snuffed out.

The Wallow Fire forced evacuations of the eastern Arizona towns of Alpine and Nutrioso last Thursday, and four smaller housing developments were evacuated on Sunday. Residents of those areas have been unable to return.

The popular mountain retreat of Greer was ordered evacuated on Monday as flames crept close. But the community appeared to have been spared after the fire shifted direction.

Nearly 1,000 firefighters continued to work on Wednesday to gain greater control over a separate large wildfire burning in the southeastern part of the state.

Officials said the Horseshoe 2 Fire had consumed nearly 107,000 acres and prompted the evacuation of two small communities there. Seven structures were reported lost in that fire, which was listed as 50 percent contained.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)

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