Arizona wildfire biggest in state history

June 16, 2011 - 4:13 AM
New Mexico Wildfires

A helicopter dumps water on smoke billowing from a forest fire north of Raton, N.M., Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Crews raced to get a jump on flames marching along the New Mexico-Colorado border and through the rugged desert canyons on the opposite on end of the state Wednesday before the weather took a turn for the worse. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — High winds expected to buffet eastern Arizona starting Thursday will challenge firefighters who have been making progress in a battle to tame the state's largest-ever wildfire.

The winds will also move into New Mexico, where crews were scrambling late Wednesday to gain on growing fires near Raton and Carlsbad before winds and searing temperatures moved into the state Thursday.

Forecasters expect the winds above the 25 mph range to last through the weekend, putting pressure on the eastern edge of the Arizona fire, the least secure part of firefighters' lines and closest to the nearest town still threatened, Luna, N.M. About 200 people live there.

But a nearly completed line of cut fuels and intentionally burned areas between Luna and the fire itself should be completed by Thursday morning, and fire commanders expressed confidence late Wednesday that it would hold.

"We feel we have enough room out there," said Jerome Macdonald, who leads one of three incident management teams assigned to the massive blaze. "We'll have a mile and a half burned out in front of it."

More than 4,600 firefighters are assigned to the nearly 750-square mile Wallow fire. It was 29 percent contained as of Wednesday evening.

Meanwhile, another fire in southern Arizona's National Forest near the city of Sierra Vista had burned or damaged at least 40 homes near Sierra Vista plus 10 other structures such as sheds by Wednesday evening. And a third Arizona blaze had burned than 184,000 acres, or 287 square miles and was 60 percent contained.

In New Mexico, crews were battling a blaze that surrounded Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The fire was 70 percent contained late Wednesday and was no longer threatening the park's visitors center and employee housing were out of danger. The Loop fire started Monday and charred about 30,500 acres of desert scrub and forced the park to close.

In northern New Mexico, crews working the Track fire bolstered lines on the southern edge of the blaze, allowing Raton officials to lift evacuation orders for residents within city limits in the hills north of the community, Evacuations remained in place for other residents. Interstate 25 between Raton and Trinidad, Colo., was still closed Wednesday night, but expected to reopen at 4 a.m. Thursday.

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor Chris Knopp said a campfire in the Bear Wallow wilderness was the Arizona fire's "most likely cause." He confirmed that investigators had questioned two people but declined to say any more about the investigation. He called them "persons of interest," not suspects.

When forest officials were first called to the fire May 29, he said they spotted a fire near a campfire. They also saw a separate fire about three miles away, but they were unsure if it had been sparked by the campfire, he said.

"I just hope they identify the people responsible for this," Knopp said.

Hundreds of firefighters have been working for days along the Mew Mexico line to keep the flames out of Luna. Thousands of others are working the rest of the fire, including around three mountain resort towns in Arizona.

Those residents still under evacuation could be allowed to go home by the weekend, Macdonald said. Alpine and Greer are under little fire threat now, but dangers like burned trees that would topple must be removed before the area is reopened.

About 2,400 people remain evacuated from Alpine and Greer and smaller vacation enclaves after about 300 were allowed to return to the town of Nutrioso on Wednesday, said Brannon Eagar, the chief sheriff's deputy in Apache County. On Sunday, all 7,000 people evacuated from the towns of Springerville and Eagar were allowed to go home.

The blaze officially became the largest in state history on Wednesday when new mapping showed it exceeded the previous record-holder, the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings.

But the Wallow Fire has destroyed only 32 homes and four rental cabins. It has consumed 478,452 acres of forest, or nearly 750 square miles, fire command team spokesman Alan Barbain said Wednesday. Of that, 4,911 acres were in New Mexico. The 473,541 in Arizona topped the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski, which burned 469,000 acres.

Some questioned the Forest Service for not putting fire restrictions in place after a winter with well below-average snowfall and extremely dry conditions.

Asked about his decision, Knopp pulled out a picture of Springerville on May 19, after 6 inches of snow had fallen.

"It seems pretty foolish for the forest to implement fire restrictions when there was just snow on the ground," he said. "If I had it to do over again, I would probably do the same thing. If I had known a fire would start, I would do it differently."

Some in the region think differently.

Toby Dahl was evacuated from Escudilla, N.M., near the Arizona border and spent six days in a temporary RV park over 60 miles away in Pie Town, N.M. He said fire restrictions should have been in place, despite the recent snow.

Dahl, 62, said his place got only 11 inches of snow all winter, compared with nearly 80 last year.

"I don't have a degree or anything but I can tell you, you just don't let anybody into the forest under these circumstances," he said.

He wasn't sure what should happen to those responsible for igniting the blaze. But he said, "Something has to be done to make people think."

Teresa Shawver, 61, who lives on a small ranch in Quemado, N.M., said she would want the perpetrators to get "the max, whatever the law would allow," if the fire was set intentionally.

"If it was an accident, something got away from them, then I have a different view on that," Shawver said.

The fire was "terrible for everybody around here," she said. "But if it was just an accident, then that's what it was."

Fires have devoured hundreds of square miles in the drought-stricken Southwest and Texas since wildfire season began several weeks ago. And the outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, calls for fire potential to be above normal in those areas through September, but normal or less than normal across the rest of the West.

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Bryan reported from Albuquerque, N.M. Associated Press writer Jeri Clausing in Albuquerque contributed to this report.