June 14, 2011 / 1:57 AM / 8 years ago

Arizona wildfire sets new record at 469,000 acres

EAGAR, Ariz (Reuters) - The wildfire that has roared out of control for more than two weeks through the pine forests of eastern Arizona set a record on Tuesday as the largest in state history, having consumed over 469,000 acres.

Smoke from the Wallow Wildfire obscures the sun at a road check point west of the Reserve, New Mexico June 13, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The Wallow Fire, which authorities suspect started from an unattended campfire, has scorched dozens of homes and displaced as many as 10,000 people since it erupted May 29 in the White Mountains region, an area popular among Arizonans as a weekend getaway from the heat of summer.

The wind-whipped blaze has burned mostly in and around the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, about 150 miles east of Phoenix, churning through vast stretches of thick ponderosa pine.

Evacuation orders were lifted on Sunday for 7,000 to 8,000 residents forced to flee last week from two towns near the border with New Mexico, Springerville and Eagar.

But authorities have warned returning families that lingering smoke and soot in the air pose health risks for children and people with respiratory problems.

An estimated 1,900 additional people from several nearby towns evacuated in the first week of the blaze were notified on Monday night that it would probably be at least a few more days before they would be permitted to go back home.

While the blaze is far from being brought under control, fire managers said on Monday that they had turned a corner in their battle to curtail its advance toward populated areas.

“Nobody’s really in the clear yet,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Suzanne Flory said on Tuesday, but she added, “Overall, there’s a sense of optimism.”

Some 4,300 firefighters working around the clock have now carved containment lines around 18 percent of the fire’s perimeter, mostly between its eastern flank and communities on either side of the Arizona-New Mexico line.

The New Mexico town of Luna, an enclave of about 200 people less than 10 miles east of the Arizona border, remains on alert for possible evacuation.

Controlled burns have been carried out on the outskirts of that town to remove tinder-dry brush and trees as potential fuel for advancing flames. But U.S. Forest Service officials say that so far the Wallow Fire itself has not crept into New Mexico.

The latest aerial infrared images of the fire on Tuesday show that 469,407 acres — or about 733 square miles — have burned overall, surpassing the 468,638 acres charred in 2002 by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in eastern Arizona. That makes the Wallow Fire the largest on record in Arizona.

In terms of property losses, however, the Rodeo-Chidiski was far worse, destroying about 400 homes, Flory said.

By comparison, the Wallow Fire has so far gutted 31 homes and damaged five others. Some three dozen nonresidential structures also have been lost. But no serious injuries have been reported.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)

This article has been modified to correct the spelling of Rodeo-Chediski Fire in the12th paragraph

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