Wildfires in FL, AZ keep growing

Thousands evacuate as 'extreme' dryness keep feeding fires

GREER, AZ (UPI) | June 8, 2011

Firefighters struggled to gain an advantage in the Wallow fire, which scorched about 389,000 acres in Arizona and is threatening New Mexico, officials said.

Meanwhile, two new northeastern Florida fires sparked by lightning Tuesday were added to dozens of already smoldering swamp fires, fire officials said.

The fast-moving Arizona fire sent at least 5,700 fleeing their homes in the eastern part of the state, including about 3,000 evacuees Tuesday, CNN reported Wednesday. Towns such as Greer and Alpine were nearly empty. Sheriff's deputies began evacuating Eagar Tuesday and alerted residents in Springerville that they too may need to leave.

The Wallow fire churning through Apache National Forest is now the second-largest blaze in Arizona history, records indicate. The largest fire, 2002's Rodeo-Chediski blaze, burned 468,638 acres.

The fire belched dense smoke visible from space and thick enough to reduce visibility to less than a mile in places, the National Weather Service said. Smoke from the fire was reported drifting in Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and southern Minnesota.

The Arizona blaze and its smoke threatened to move into New Mexico, disrupting flights and prompted an air quality alert, authorities said. New Mexico officials told residents of Luna to be prepared to evacuate, a spokeswoman for the Incident Management Team overseeing firefighting efforts said.

Wind gusts tossed embers onto dry vegetation, stoking the fire that destroyed at least 10 structures and threatened 350 more Tuesday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The weather and the region's steep terrain combined to thwart a counterattack by 2,100 firefighters, 20 helicopters and eight bulldozers, authorities said.

As of Tuesday night, the fire had not been contained, officials said.

The National Weather Service said low humidity and high winds would last at least through Wednesday. The National Interagency Fire Center said similar conditions would increase fire risks across the southwestern United States, including Arizona, New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and west Texas.

"The fire moves so fast. It's the same as holding a matchstick upside down," said Jim Hyland, a spokesman for the firefighting operation, which has drawn crews from around the country.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency in two counties and transportation officials closed about 150 miles of highways, the Times said.

Communication in the area of the fire was difficult and cell phone service was spotty, firefighting personnel told KOB-TV, Albuquerque. The National Guard was expected to bring communication equipment into the area to help address the matter.

Florida's Division of Forestry said conditions for fire have reached extreme levels, The Florida Times-Union reported Wednesday.

Forestry spokesman Timber Weller said there were 52 active fires in St. Johns, Flagler and Volusia counties, most affecting 10 acres or less.

Weller said the potential exists for the fires to grow due to extremely dry conditions.

One large fire in the Espanola area of Flagler County involves 1,500 acres, Weller said, and is mostly inside a swamp.

The oldest fire that is still active started April 26.

A brush fire covering 7,400 acres in West Miami-Dade County continued to grow Tuesday, The Miami Herald reported.

Firefighters said that blaze was about 10 percent contained by nightfall.

The cause of the fire remains unknown although one theory is that it may have been started by all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.

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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