Wednesday, 8 June 2011

More than 5,000 flee as winds stoke Arizona fires

(CNN) -- A fast-moving wildfire that has sent thousands fleeing in eastern Arizona is the second-largest blaze in the history of the state, records show.

The so-called Wallow Fire sweeping through Apache National Forest has burned approximately 389,000 acres, Incident commander Joe Reinarz told reporters Tuesday.

That surpasses the 2005 Cave Creek wildfire previously ranked the second-largest blaze in Arizona history. It scorched 248,310 acres, according to records published on the Southwest Coordination Center regional interagency website.

The Rodeo/Chediski blaze of 2002, which burned 468,638 acres, was Arizona's largest wildfire, officials said.

Unless the low humidity rises and the high winds die down, the current blaze could continue to spread, fire officials warned. The National Weather Service issued a red flag alert for Wednesday along all but the northernmost tip of Arizona's eastern border. The alert puts the area at extreme risk for fire.

The weather service also issued a red flag alert for southwestern and northeastern New Mexico.

The forecast calls for 20 mph winds with gusts of up to 35 mph in Arizona, which could spark spot fires beyond the current containment zone and force the evacuation of more people.

"Further evacuations will come if this does not hold tonight," Reinarz said.

The fire has put 343 structures at risk, however only 10 have been destroyed so far, officials said.

As many as 3,000 additional people were evacuated Tuesday, a Red Cross official said. They join an estimated 2,700 others who've abandoned their homes in eastern Arizona.
U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl and his wife who were forced to leave their cabin in Greer because of the advancing fire, according to CNN affiliate KNXV.

Residents living south of State Highway 260 and east of Greer, including South Fork and parts of Eagar, were told to leave their homes, fire officials said.

Residents of Springerville, which is just north of the evacuation line, have been told they should be prepared to leave their homes.

"We're going to evacuate if they tell us to go," resident Lee Murdock told CNN affiliate KTVK. "There ain't nothing I own that's worth as much as the family."
Murdock said he's moved livestock to the fairgrounds in nearby St. Johns because of the advancing fire.

Meanwhile, firefighters struggled Tuesday to gain advantages over a blaze that produced dense plumes of smoke that were visible from space and thick enough to reduce visibility to less than a mile in some places, according to the National Weather Service.

Spillover smoke from the Arizona blaze disrupted flights and prompted an air quality alert in neighboring New Mexico on Tuesday. The weather service's air quality alert for Wednesday includes most of northwest New Mexico west of Interstate 25 and north of U.S. Highway 60.

New Mexico officials told residents in the town of Luna to be prepared to leave, according to Terri Wildermuth, a spokeswoman for the Incident Management Team overseeing firefighting efforts.

"I'm starting to feel like I've been chain-smoking and all my clothes smell like I've been camping," said CNN iReporter Eric Place, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"Sometimes, not like huge flakes, but little ash particles, are visible."

In Arizona, the Red Cross has set up an evacuation center at a school in Lakeside.
So far, about 75 evacuees have checked into the shelter, said Weldon, though not everyone was expected to stay.

More than 2,000 firefighters are engaged in the fight against the fire, along with 20 helicopters, 141 fire engines, 46 water tenders and eight bulldozers, according to officials.

The blaze remained at 0% containment Tuesday night.

The National Weather Service warned critical fire weather, with low humidity and high winds, would continue at least through Wednesday in Arizona. The National Interagency Fire Center said similar conditions would heighten the risk of fires across the southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and west Texas.

Including Wallow, there are currently seven active wildfires burning across Arizona, according to InciWeb, an online state-by-state database of fires and other disasters. The Arizona wildfires also include three separate blazes that have consumed 165,017 acres in the Coronado National Forest. One of them has been burning since May 8, according to InciWeb.