June 20, 2011 / 12:57 AM / 8 years ago

Lighter winds help crews battle Arizona wildfires

SIERRA VISTA, Arizona (Reuters) - Diminished winds on Monday gave firefighters a new edge in battling two wildfires in eastern Arizona that have charred well over half a million acres and forced more than 11,000 people from their homes over the weekend.

Smoke from the Pacheco Canyon Wildfire rises behind the Buffalo Thunder Casino in Pojoaque, New Mexico June 19, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The so-called Wallow Fire in Arizona’s White Mountains near New Mexico has scorched a record 800 square miles since it erupted three weeks ago, but a smaller blaze 200 miles to the south already has caused greater property losses and placed thousands more homes in immediate danger.

Improved weather conditions provided a welcome boost to thousands of firefighters on both fronts, while allowing air tanker planes grounded by high winds on Sunday to resume their aerial assaults with fire-retardant payloads.

Crews fighting the Monument Fire, burning near the U.S.-Mexican border a few miles south of Sierra Vista, Arizona, were helped by the weakening of sustained to between 10 and 15 miles per hour early Monday after a weekend struggling against gale-force gusts.

“The winds are not so bad today — 10 mph, versus 60 mph — so we are hoping that they are able to get a better handle on it,” said Carol Capas, a spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.

Capas said some 2,600 homes were evacuated on Saturday and another 1,700 dwellings on Sunday, after fierce winds spread flames down through rugged canyons and across parched ranch lands beneath the scorched slopes of the Huachuca Mountains.

Those evacuations displaced an estimated 11,000 people combined.

“They are staying with friends, family, local hotels, motels,” Capas said.

Additional emergency shelters were set up at schools in Sierra Vista and in the adjacent town of Bisbee and at a community college near the border town of Douglas, Capas said.

By Monday morning, the blaze had blackened nearly 27,000 acres of pine forests, heavy brush and grass, but ground crews had managed to carve containment lines around more than a quarter of the fire’s perimeter, Capas said.

The Monument Fire, which has destroyed at least 44 homes since it began a week ago in the Coronado National Forest, jumped containment lines in the community of Hereford over the weekend, authorities said.

Easing winds on Monday also aided crews fighting the Wallow Fire, which erupted May 29 in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona and has grown into the region’s largest conflagration of the season.

That blaze has destroyed at least 32 homes and charred 519,000 acres of ponderosa pine forests, ranking as the largest wildfire in Arizona history in terms of the dimensions of landscape burned.

But by Monday morning, containment lines had been established around more than half of the blaze, fire task force spokesman Terry Stemmler said.

“The north side of the fire and the west side of the fire are looking really good,” Stemmler told Reuters, adding that about 300 evacuees from the communities of Greer and Sunrise were being allowed to return for the first time in two weeks.

That left about 200 people from Luna, New Mexico, a tiny town evacuated on Saturday just east of the Arizona border, as virtually the only residents still displaced by the Wallow Fire. But authorities reported electrical power disruptions to Luna several communities in Arizona from the fire on Monday.

About 200 miles farther to the northeast inside New Mexico, the Pacheco Canyon Fire ballooned to more than 3,000 acres over the weekend, burning through dense ponderosa and mixed-conifer forest on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

Fire information officer Earl Cordes said firefighters had established an anchor point on the south end of that blaze and would start carving a fire break on the left flank on Monday.

“The reason for that is to prevent further growth back toward Santa Fe and power lines and just allow the fire to burn into the wilderness until we can get more resources,” he said.

In Texas, firefighters on Monday were battling nearly 30 blazes, the largest of which has consumed about 20,000 acres, while a separate 4,000-acre blaze destroyed 30 homes over the weekend about 80 miles northwest of Houston, the Texas Forest Service reported.

(Additional reporting by Zelie Pollon and David Schwartz; Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)

The following story was corrected in the 7th paragraph to show evacuees estimate to 11,000, instead of 4,300

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