Arizona wildfire swallows over 600 square miles

arizona-wildfire-swallows-over-600-square-milesArizona – A monster wildfire believed started by careless campers roared unchecked through eastern Arizona for an 11th day on Wednesday, leaving 600 square miles blackened and forcing thousands of edgy residents holed up in two towns to flee. The blaze, ranked as Arizona’s second-largest forest fire on record, prompted the complete evacuation of the two mountain  communities near the New Mexico border. Springerville and Eager, home to some 8,000 people combined, were evacuated late in the day. As many as 2,000 people, most of them in Eager, had been chased from the area over the past two days, but officials had allowed most residents to stay put while keeping them on standby for possible further evacuations.

The order to clear out came shortly before 5 p.m. local time, accompanied by a terse Twitter message advising residents: “(the) Apache County Sheriff’s Office has ordered a full evacuation of Springerville and Eager, effective now.” “We’re hoping a number of people have already left; that will make this a lot easier,” Sergeant Richard Guinn, a sheriff’s spokesman, told Reuters. The small New Mexican town of Luna, just over the eastern Arizona border, remained on alert. “I’m trying to protect my belongings as best I can,” said Wayne Lutz, 68, an Eager resident who spent the day clearing brush and dampening his property with sprinklers before the final evacuation order.

“If push comes to shove, I can be out of here in 10 minutes,” he told Reuters by telephone. “The house is insured. My life is not.” As many as 11,000 residents in all have been displaced in the White Mountains region, a popular vacation destination for Arizonans seeking to escape the summer heat, since the fire erupted on May 29. One was Jeanne Udall, 66, a longtime area resident who packed up her belongings and fled her log cabin Tuesday, seeking refuge with her husband and daughters in a trailer home by the Springerville airport. “We prepared like we weren’t going to be coming back,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do. It’s out of our control and into the Lord’s hands.”

Udall was forced to flee again Wednesday when the airport was shut down ahead of the final evacuation notice. While the wind-whipped blaze remained at zero containment, no injuries have been reported and known property losses were limited so far to 11 structures, including at least four cabins, fire officials said. New Mexico state officials were also readying for the blaze, which they said was about a mile from the border on Wednesday, to cross into their state. The fire’s menace was apparent from a great distance. Santa Fe resident John Fogarty recalled seeing a tower of smoke approaching from the west as he was hiking in the mountains late Monday afternoon, more than 200 miles to the northeast. “It was a 30,000-foot-high wall of dark smoke, rolling over the mountains and heading directly toward Santa Fe. The sun was bright red and glowing. It was like Armageddon,” he said.

Overnight Tuesday and early Wednesday, fire crews set backfires in a bid to draw the flames away from threatened homes, and bulldozers cut a 10-mile-long buffer zone south of Eager between the leading edge of the blaze and populated areas. Some 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze. Winds fanning the fire through tinder-dry ponderosa pines were expected to intensify again Wednesday afternoon, with gusts forecast to reach 42 miles per hour. “This fire is very large and very intense, and we’re still just trying to get a handle on it,” said fire information officer Brenyn Lohmoelder. As of Wednesday, fire officials said the so-called Wallow Fire had charred up to 389,000 acres, or well over 600 square miles, in and around the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. Smoke from the conflagration, which fire officials suspect may have started from an unattended campfire, has drifted across several states as far east as Iowa.

The state’s largest wildfire on record, the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona, blackened almost 469,000 acres in 2002 before it was snuffed out. The Wallow Fire forced evacuations of the eastern Arizona towns of Alpine and Nutrioso last Thursday, and four smaller housing developments were evacuated on Sunday. The popular mountain retreat of Greer was ordered evacuated on Monday as flames crept close. But the community was spared when the fire shifted direction. Nearly 1,000 firefighters continued to work on Wednesday to gain greater control over a separate large wildfire burning in the  utheastern part of the state. Officials said the Horseshoe 2 Fire had consumed nearly 107,000 acres and prompted the evacuation of two small communities there. Seven structures were reported lost in that fire, which was listed as 50 percent contained. – Yahoonews