High winds, temps propel Southwestern wildfires

June 18, 2011 - 4:28 AM
Western Wildfires

A sky crane CH-44 drops water cooling off the edge of the track fire northeast of Raton, N.M., Friday, June 17, 2011. Along the New Mexico-Colorado border, the winds Thursday pushed one fire toward breaks that had been carved into the rugged landscape by bulldozers. Crews had anticipated the fire's movement and were prepared to hold the line with help from helicopters and air tankers. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Firefighters are confronting strong winds and steamy weekend temperatures in their battle to keep more homes, dry forests and stretches of high desert from the flames of several wildfires throughout the Southwest.

With summer rains still weeks away, forecasters said crews would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that dogging them this past week. More high-wind warnings and fire weather watches were on tap for many areas through the weekend.

Along the New Mexico-Colorado border, the wind got stronger as Friday progressed, testing fire lines that had been cleared through the rugged wooded area by bulldozers. Flags at the incident command post were whipping.

In southern Arizona, the wind also helped fan the flames of two wildfires that had charred nearly 225,000 acres. One of the fires near Sierra Vista continued to push down a canyon, forcing more residents from their homes and putting others on notice that they might have to leave.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer flew over the area in Cochise County that was blackened by the Monument and Horseshoe II fires. She declared an emergency Friday, freeing up state funds to help with the firefighting efforts.

U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell was scheduled to visit the Arizona fire operations Saturday and assess the progress.

The blaze near Sierra Vista in southern Arizona has charred 18,580 acres, or 29 square miles, and containment was 15 percent. It has destroyed up to 50 homes as well as other structures.

Investigators said the fire was human-caused, but they have not determined who started it. They were able to pinpoint the initial area in the Coronado Memorial where it started June 12.

In eastern Arizona along the New Mexico border, investigators believe a single campfire was the most likely cause of what has become the largest wildfire in that state's history.

The Wallow fire has consumed 773 square miles, or 495,016 acres, and more than 4,600 firefighters are trying to stop its advance. The blaze this week exceeded a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings. Though larger in size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins.

Containment remained at 33 percent Friday, but more winds were predicted through the weekend, with gusts of 50 mph possible. A pre-evacuation notice for an area in southeast Eagar, Ariz., remained in effect.

"We're kind of keeping our fingers crossed for the next three days because of the predictions," fire information officer Richard Hadley said.

Fire managers were concerned about the fire burning in the Blue Range area south of Alpine, Ariz. — the least secure part of firefighters' lines and closest to the nearest town still threatened, Luna, N.M., where about 200 people live.

About 2,400 people remained evacuated from Alpine and Greer, Ariz., and smaller vacation enclaves after about 300 were allowed to return to Nutrioso, Ariz., on Wednesday. Last Sunday, all 7,000 people evacuated from Eagar and neighboring Springerville were allowed to go home.

Authorities in southern New Mexico were also looking for "persons of interest" as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso.

As for the causes of the other blazes that have raced across parts of New Mexico this week, investigators are still trying to make determinations.

More than 582,000 acres have burned in New Mexico so far this year, and state forestry spokesman Dan Ware said much of that damage is the result of human-caused fires.

"It's everyday activities — welding, grinding, driving, debris burning," he said. "People know its dry, but I think people kind of have this built-in sense of invulnerability and they think 'It's not going to happen to me. I'm being careful.'"

"This is one of those years where the oh-it-can't-happen-to-me mentality doesn't cut it," Ware added.

The costs are too high for people to be careless or disregard restrictions, said Neil Segotta, the mayor of Raton, N.M. He has watched for the past week as hundreds of firefighters have battled a wildfire burning in the mountains above his community.

The fire has burned more than 27,000 acres along the New Mexico-Colorado border, devastating the community's watershed, destroying eight homes and six other structures and forcing the evacuation of several hundred people. Most residents have been allowed to return home with the exception of those near the eastern flank and some to the northwest of Raton.

Firefighters were focused Friday on keeping the flames from pushing farther into Colorado. In that state, more than 7,100 acres have burned since the fire started Sunday on the west side of Interstate 25.

Crews have built lines to keep the flames in check on the northern end. They worked Friday to bolster those lines and continued mop-up operations elsewhere on the fire's perimeter.

Friday was another busy day for firefighting crews across the West. Fires were burning near Yakima, Wash., west of St. George, Utah, and in southern Colorado.