June 7, 2011 / 12:09 AM / in 6 years

Eastern Arizona wildfire displaces up to 3,000 people

4 Min Read

<p>Jerry Kinny sits in his vehicle and smokes a cigarette as he watches smoke from the Wallow Wildfire fill the sky along U.S. Route 180 in Luna, New Mexico, June 6, 2011.Joshua Lott</p>

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A stubborn wildfire in eastern Arizona that has forced the evacuation of as many as 3,000 people flared out of control for a 10th day on Tuesday and advanced on two more mountain towns near New Mexico.

Fire officials said more than 2,300 firefighters faced another tough day of fierce winds that threatened to blow the massive blaze northward and closer to the communities of Eager and Springerville, with an estimated 7,500 residents combined.

Fire officials have put both towns in Arizona's White Mountains region on alert for possible evacuation on Monday. The small town of Luna, New Mexico, also falls under the pre-evacuation alert.

The popular mountain retreat of Greer, home to roughly 200 permanent residents, was ordered evacuated on Monday as flames crept to within 5 miles of town. But the community appeared on Tuesday to be out of immediate danger as the leading edge of the fire pushed north.

"Right now, we really do think that the fire direction will veer away from Greer and move more toward Eager and Springerville," said Terri Wildermuth, a fire information official. "But I have to say again that anything can happen."

Weather forecasts call for sustained winds of up to 18 miles per hour, with gusts even higher in the region, about 250 miles northeast of Phoenix and stretching to near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

At midday Tuesday, fire officials said the so-called Wallow Fire had charred more than 311,000 acres, or nearly 487 square miles, since it erupted on May 29, and now ranks as the second-largest wildfire in Arizona's history.

<p>House are seen along the U.S. Route 180 as smoke from the Wallow Wildfire fills the sky in Luna, New Mexico, June 6, 2011.Joshua Lott</p>

Much of the fire burned through tinder-dry ponderosa pine groves in and around the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, and a plume of smoke has spread across several states as far east as Iowa.

No one has been hurt, and reported property losses have been limited to 10 buildings, including at least four cabins, so far. But Governor Jan Brewer said that as many as 3,000 people have been forced from their homes. On Monday she declared a state of emergency for two counties.

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.

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As of Tuesday, containment of the Wallow Fire remained at zero. Brewer said fire officials were hoping to gain some control over the blaze by Thursday or Friday, though her spokesman, Matt Benson, said firefighting progress hinged on weather conditions.

Several hundred residents from the eastern Arizona towns of Alpine and Nutrioso were ordered from their homes last Thursday, and four smaller housing developments were evacuated on Sunday. Those evacuation orders were still in effect on Tuesday, and residents in the town of Luna, just over the New Mexico line, remained on standby.

"It's very scary up here," said Bill Farbstein, who works at the Springerville-Eager Chamber of Commerce and fled his home in Nutrioso with his wife on Thursday. "Everyone is very concerned. It's ruining the best part of the forest right now." Farbstein said he is unsure whether there will be anything left when he returns home.

Nearly 900 firefighters continued to work on Tuesday 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 more than 104,000 acres and prompted the evacuation of two small communities there. That fire was listed as 55 percent contained.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune

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