Massive wildfire continues to grow

More than 2,000 AZ residents forced to evacuate one of the largest wildfires in state's history.

EDGAR, AZ | June 7, 2011

Wind-whipped flames from a massive 365-square-mile Arizona wildfire pushed toward New Mexico early Tuesday as more people evacuated their homes, officials said.

The Wallow Fire, burning more than 233,000 acres of eastern Arizona wilderness and the 1.8 million-acre Apache National Forest, has forced more than 3,000 people to flee their homes, officials said. More than 2,300 firefighters from coast to coast battled the fire about 250 miles northeast of Phoenix -- the third-largest in state history.

Only two other Arizona fires have reached more than 200,000 acres -- the Cave Creek Complex Fire of 2005, which burned nearly 250,000 acres, and the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which burned almost 470,000 acres, officials said.

It is believed the Wallow Fire -- whose smoky haze traveled more than 1,300 miles over six states into Iowa -- was sparked May 29 by an abandoned campfire, state fire authorities said.

Heavy smoke from the blaze blanketed Gallup, N.M., and filled the valley surrounding Albuquerque. Gallup, with more than 20,000 people, is the most populous city between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, Ariz.

Fire crews sought to protect the town of Luna, N.M., after evacuating the Arizona mountain communities of Alpine and Nutrioso, as well as the vacation town of Greer, amid the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

The Round Valley communities of Eagar, population 4,000, and Springerville, population 2,000, were told to be ready to evacuate, The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday.

Those communities are near the White Mountains, known for having the world's largest stand of Ponderosa pines, 230,000 acres of which were destroyed in the fire.

The fire destroyed several ranches and at least four rental cabins but the U.S. Forest Service said no deaths or serious injuries were reported.

Three other large fires burned in the southern part of the state, with two merging into a single larger fire early Tuesday, officials said. Those fires so far haven't prompted large-scale evacuations or burned any private structures or residences, officials said.

On Monday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed an emergency declaration to set wheels in motion to help cover the costs of wildfires raging in the state.

A statement posted on the governor's Website said the declaration releases $200,000 from the Governor's Emergency Funds to pay for emergency responses and recovery expenses for damage resulting from the still-untamed blazes.

The release said the money will pay costs not covered by federal fire management assistance funds and recovery efforts after the fires are put out. The declaration authorizes the state adjutant general to mobilize the Arizona National Guard as necessary.

The governor said the State Emergency Operations Center will be activated Tuesday morning to coordinate and direct all state emergency response activities.

More than 2,000 people fled their homes as firefighters tried to prevent the Wallow fire from gaining more ground, ABC News reported. The fire has consumed 192,000 acres near the Arizona-New Mexico state line.

Because of the threat of high winds, residents in the resort town of Greer and other communities along the eastern side of the White Mountains were put under an evacuation alert, officials said.

"It was horrific -- the likes of a fire I've never seen from the air before," Brewer said.

Officials said some residents were using inhalers to breathe through the thick smoke.

The Wallow fire, which began May 29, mushroomed into one of the larger blazes in Arizona history.

Emergency crews set a series of smaller fires Saturday to create a fire line to try to halt the advance of the fire that has burned an estimated 225 square miles and cost $3 million to fight so far.

The National Weather Service has placed the northern half of the state under a "red flag warning," meaning conditions are ripe for wildfires.

"The head of the fire is knocking on Alpine's door," Brad Pitassi, a spokesman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, told CNN. "We have spot fires in Alpine. The crews have been able to stop those fires from growing."

Alpine has been evacuated.

Pitassi called the Wallow fire "significant" with "a lot of growth potential."

About 2,000 firefighters from across the country are battling the Wallow fire, The Arizona Republic reported.

Judith Dyess, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, told the Republic officials need "a clear notion of where we're going" if they expect to deal successfully with such a huge and unpredictable fire as the Wallow fire, coordinating efforts of thousands of firefighters."

"With any big fire, you don't just jump in front of it and start fighting it. You establish anchor points and work from there," Dyess said. "The first anchor point was on the southwest side of the fire."

The initial action is flanking the fire to begin "pinching it down," she said. "We're trying to stop the progress of the fire there."

Copyright 2011 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.

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