PHOENIX (Reuters) - Forest fire teams in eastern Arizona seized on a second straight day of light winds on Friday to press their assault on a monster blaze that has displaced some 10,000 people and scorched over 600 square miles.
Cooler temperatures, rising humidity and diminished winds helped freshly bolstered air and ground crews to begin curtailing the fire 12 days after it erupted in the mountainous terrain and thick, tinder-dry pine groves of the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest.
By Thursday night, firefighters had managed to carve a perimeter of “containment” around 5 percent of the fire, which authorities suspect was started from an unattended campfire.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Suzanne Flory said this morning that firefighters had a “good night” and would aggressively attack the blaze again through Friday to take advantage of a second day of favorable weather before the return of higher winds forecast for Saturday.
“There’s a sense of urgency today,” she said, adding that progress made so far was limited relative to the fire’s enormous size.
“We have a ways to go before we can really say that we’ve turned the corner,” she said. “It’s going to be a long fight.”
The firefighting force was increased on Thursday to more than 3,000 personnel, up from about 2,000 earlier.
The easing of high winds that had rapidly spread the flames for several days allowed a fleet of water-dropping helicopters to return to the skies on Thursday, joined by a DC-10 supertanker carrying payloads of fire retardant.
Ground crews worked around the clock with bulldozers to cut buffer zones between the fire’s edge and populated areas and to set backfires designed to draw flames away from homes.
Flory said the helicopter crews, too, were taking part in backfire operations, dropping “aerial ignition” canisters into remote, hard-to-reach stretches of forest behind fire lines.
Their job was eased as the blaze began burning out of the heavy timber into areas with fewer trees, fire officials said.
In the biggest property losses yet reported from the blaze, which ranks as Arizona’s second-largest on record, the Forest Service said 22 homes were demolished and five more damaged on Wednesday in the town of Greer, a small mountain retreat of about 200 dwellings.
On Friday, the agency put the number of destroyed homes from the fire overall at 29, with 24 nonresidential buildings also lost. No serious injuries have been reported.
Fire crews have so far kept flames from encroaching on two larger nearby towns of Eager and Springerville, ordered fully evacuated on Wednesday.
The two towns are home to roughly 8,000 permanent residents combined, accounting for most of those displaced in the White Mountains region, a popular vacation destination for Arizonans seeking to escape the summer heat.
Flory said an estimated 1,900 people already had been forced from their homes by the time Springerville and Eager were evacuated.
Springerville Mayor Eric Baca, 38, who has lived in the area his entire life, called the fire “a punch in the gut.”
“This is devastating,” he told Reuters by telephone. “This couldn’t have happened to a more pristine area. This is our lifeblood ... and now a lot of it is gone.”
A handful of additional mountain hamlets west of Arizona’s eastern border with New Mexico have remained empty since their residents were ordered out days ago.
The easternmost flank of the blaze burned a short distance across the New Mexico line late on Thursday, Flory said, and several small towns in that state have been placed on alert for possible evacuations.
Work continued on a bulldozed fire break stretching more than 10 miles into New Mexico, and Governor Susana Martinez ordered National Guard troops to the town of Reserve to assist in preparations for the blaze.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton