June 12, 2011 / 12:03 AM / 8 years ago

Arizona fire officials lift evacuation for 2 towns

LUNA, New Mexico (Reuters) - Forest fire crews along the Arizona-New Mexico border braced for another day of high winds and low humidity on Sunday, battling a monster blaze that has forced as many as 10,000 people from their homes and charred 680 square miles.

A wildland firefighter cuts down a tree on the eastern edge of the Wallow Wildfire outside Alpine, Arizona near the state border, west of the town of Luna, New Mexico June 12, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Much of the effort on the fifteenth day of the Wallow Fire was focused on keeping flames from encroaching on Luna, New Mexico, a village of about 200 people at the edge of the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest near the easternmost flank of the blaze.

Meanwhile, 7,000 to 8,000 residents from two eastern Arizona towns evacuated last week, Springerville and Eager, were allowed to return to their homes as authorities determined the fire no longer posed an immediate danger to them.

But returning evacuees were warned that lingering smoke and soot in the air posed risks for children and people with health problems.

Some 1,900 Arizona additional residents from elsewhere across the fire zone remained displaced, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Suzanne Flory said.

Fire officials in New Mexico told Reuters that an estimated 3,900 structures — homes and nonresidential buildings combined — were still under a fire threat.

With some 4,300 personnel assigned to ground crews battling the blaze, about half were on the New Mexico side of the border, laboring to clear fire breaks around Luna and other populated areas.

As of Sunday morning the blaze, which erupted in the White Mountains region of eastern Arizona on May 29 from what authorities suspect was an unattended campfire, had crept to within a mile of the New Mexico border but had not yet crossed the line.

Fire officials said earlier reports of the blaze entering New Mexico stemmed from confusion over controlled burns conducted in recent days to remove tinder-dry brush and trees as potential fuel for advancing flames.

“It’s a heads-up day for us,” fire information officer Stan Hinatsu said on Sunday morning, explaining that rising temperatures, falling humidity and higher winds would combine to worsen conditions for firefighters.

A Red Flag warning, indicating extreme fire danger, was posted for a second straight day after two days of relatively calm winds that had allowed fire crews to finally begin to curtail the blaze.

Firefighters have managed to carve a perimeter of “containment” around 6 percent of the conflagration, but Forest Service officials said they had a long way to go.

The latest aerial infrared images of the fire showed it has consumed over 435,000 acres, or 680 square miles, of pine-studded forest, ranking it as the second-largest blaze on record in Arizona. The state’s biggest wildfire ever was the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona, which charred nearly 469,000 acres in 2002.

The Wallow Fire has destroyed a total of 29 homes so far, 22 of those in the town of Greer, Arizona, a small mountain retreat of about 200 dwellings, plus 35 nonresidential structures, according to the Forest Service. No serious injuries have been reported.

Additional reporting by David Schwartz; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Barbara Goldberg

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