Arizona forest fire triggers new evacuation orders

Published 11:26 am Monday, June 6, 2011

GREER, Ariz. (AP) — One of the biggest wildfires ever in Arizona grew even larger Sunday and authorities ordered more people in White Mountain communities to abandon their homes as the 287-square-mile blaze burned closer to buildings.

Fire officials said late Sunday night that the blaze expanded by several thousand acres during the day and had reached 184,000 acres, the third largest in the state’s history.

About 2,300 firefighters and battling the blaze, including many from several western states and some from as far away as New York, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.

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The Apache County sheriff’s office told an unknown number of people east of the town of Alpine along U.S. Highway 180 to get out as the forest fire crept closer.

Alpine itself has been under mandatory evacuation orders since Thursday night, along with the community of Nutrioso and several lodges and camps in the scenic high country.

Subdivisions close to the New Mexico border that were ordered emptied Sunday included Escudilla Mountain Estates, Bonita, Dog Patch, and the H-V Ranch east of Highway 180, fire information officer Eric Neitzel said.

People packed up their belongings as smoke covered the mountain vacation towns in a smoky fog, and wind blew smoke from the burning pine forest well into nearby New Mexico and Colorado.

Crews have zero containment of the fire, which has been burning for a week.

In the vacation town of Greer, which has fewer than 200 year-round residents, many people voluntarily left Saturday. Those who remained, mostly business owners, dealt with haze heavily tinged with smoke. Among them was the owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge, who was hauling out his most valuable items.

Allan Johnson spent Sunday morning getting antiques, including an 1886 table brought by covered wagon from Utah and a 1928 Oldsmobile the lodge uses for weddings, out of the fire’s path. He said he was not taking reservations but was keeping the restaurant open, mainly as a meeting place.

Greer is within miles of the fire, which officials expect will grow given a windy forecast and expected dry lightning Sunday and Monday. If the blaze comes within two miles of a containment line nearby, the town will be evacuated.

“We’re all waiting for the word,” Johnson said. “It could be 24 hours, could be eight hours. It might not happen at all — that’s what we’re all rooting and praying for.”

Winds died down overnight, allowing crews to burn 30 miles of containment lines between active and unburned areas that create a buffer from the most violent wind-driven runs.

“It gives a much greater chance of it having diminished fire behavior as it approaches the lines,” Frenzen told The Associated Press. “And that’s the concern, that you might get intense fire activity that might throw embers over the line and spot beyond our control lines.”

On Saturday, Gov. Jan Brewer called the blaze “horrific” following an aerial tour and said it was “the likes of a fire of which I have never experienced from the air.”

In Nutrioso, the blaze came within two miles of homes, and heavy yellowish smoke in Alpine reduced visibility to about a quarter mile. Heavy smoke drifted into northwestern New Mexico towns such as Fence Lake and Zuni Pueblo, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fetting, and it was expected to reach as far north as Gallup. The haze could reach as far as Albuquerque by Monday as winds shift to the east.

Fire officials said about 2,300 firefighters were on the scene, many from several western states and as far away as New York.

Since the blaze started May 29, four summer rental cabins have been destroyed, the U.S. Forest Service said. No serious injuries have been reported.

The fire is the state’s third-largest, behind a 2002 blaze that blackened more than 732 square miles and one in 2005 that burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek.

The state also was contending with another major wildfire, its fifth-largest, in far southeastern Arizona that threatened a church camp and two communities. Air crews dumped water and retardant near the Methodist church camp Saturday as the 156-square-mile blaze burned around the evacuated camp in the steep Pine Canyon near the community of Paradise.

Paradise, as well as East Whitetail Canyon, was evacuated in advance and the nearby Chiricahua National Monument was closed as a precaution. Crews set backfires and kept the blaze from about a dozen occupied homes and other vacation residences.

The 100,000-acre fire held steady throughout Sunday.

“They did quite well in holding the fire today,” fire management spokeswoman Karen Ripley said late Sunday night.

She said two summer cabins and four outbuildings were consumed by flames in recent days but hadn’t been reported earlier because crews hadn’t reached those area to assess damage.