Fire forces Ariz. towns to prepare for evacuation

June 7, 2011 - 5:12 AM

APTOPIX Arizona Wildfires

73-year-old Jerry Kinney, reflected in the mirror, lights a cigarette as smoke plumes from the Wallow fire fill the sky in Luna, N.M., Monday, June 6, 2011. Firefighters worked furiously Monday to save a line of mountain communities in eastern Arizona from a gigantic blaze that has forced thousands of people from their homes and cast a smoky haze over states as far away as Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — Wind, lightning and continued dry conditions are expected to make matters worse in eastern Arizona, where a raging wildfire shows no signs it's done feasting on forestland in an area that has long provided a cool summer getaway from the nearby desert's oppressive heat.

The 365-square-mile Wallow fire has been burning for more than a week. Firefighters have managed to keep the flames from homes in some of the resort towns that have been evacuated, but the fire continued to march north Monday with the help of winds that gusted to more than 60 mph.

While the weather settled down somewhat overnight, the crews and their commanders know what's in store.

"The bad news is it's supposed to pick back up all the way through Thursday," Joe Reinarz, commander of the team battling the fire, told an auditorium packed with residents who gathered for an update Monday night.

He had a warning for them.

"We've got about three or four days ahead of us right now that are going to try all of us," he said before urging them to prepare for evacuations.

The fire has already forced people to leave their homes in Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer, a picturesque town where most of the 200 full-time residents had already fled by the time deputies started going door to door. Authorities Monday also ordered everyone still left in the nearby area known as Sunrise to leave.

"It's heartbreaking," said Allan Johnson, owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge in Greer, the oldest in the state. He was pessimistic about the chances of saving the lodge and the hundreds of vacation homes in the area.

"We're numb. Our entire family and our friends are just numb," he said.

As the sun went down Monday, a huge pall of black smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eagar and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people. As the public meeting was under way, sheriff's officials began visiting homes and businesses, telling people to prepare to leave.

Reinarz pointed to a yellow line on a map, saying that would be the trigger for asking residents of the area known as Round Valley to get out. That line is about eight miles from the towns.

Apache County Chief Sheriff's Deputy Brannon Eagar, whose great-great grandfather was one of the valley's original settlers, told those at the meeting that firefighters have a mission bigger than saving any one home.

"We have to look at the big picture," he said after getting choked up about having to evacuate residents from Greer. "This thing is huge. You guys can all see that. Look at this map. There's no controlling it. There's no way to predict what it's going to do. We have to take what mother nature sends us."

Officials believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze on May 29.

So far, the flames have destroyed five buildings and have scorched more than 233,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest after nearly doubling in size since Saturday. No serious injuries have been reported.

About 2,700 to 3,000 people are believed to have fled Alpine and Nutrioso late last week, Gov. Jan Brewer said.

Roughly 2,500 firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, are working to contain the fire, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.

Brewer signed an emergency declaration Monday that will allow the use of $200,000 in emergency funds and authorizes the mobilization of the National Guard if it becomes necessary.

Haze from the fire was being carried by a ridge of high pressure as far as central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver. The smoke was also visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

In eastern Colorado, the haze obscured the view of the mountains from downtown Denver and prompted some municipal health departments to issue air quality warnings.

In Arizona, heavy smoke forced the closure of several roads, including about a two-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 180 between Alpine and the New Mexico line, Frenzen said.

In Springerville, the giant plume of white smoke that had billowed thousands of feet into the air turned black as dusk neared. The smell of smoke permeated the community and nerves were rattled.

David Chimera, owner of the Spur Feeds Store at the edge of town, said customers have been coming in to buy supplies as they make preparations to evacuate.

Some have already left homes that are closer to the fire. Larry Hoppe was one of them.

Hoppe, who lives with his family near Nutrioso, was on vacation in Arkansas when he heard about the fire. He said his two horses were too spooked by the smoke, wind and commotion to be loaded up and had to remain at his home.

"The good Lord has given us plenty of time. We didn't have to do anything in a panic mode. We had time to make an orderly evacuation. It's amazing the blessings you get as the storm is going on," Hoppe said.

For Chief Deputy Eagar and others, the blessings still don't outweigh the painful prospect of losing everything to the flames.

"Most of the people who live here have a lot of family here and have lived here for a long time," he said. "The reason that we live here, one of the reasons, is this beautiful mountain that we have. It's still going to be there, it's just going to be different for us. But it's difficult for us all and I know the anxiety that these people are going through."

The fire is the state's third-largest ever, behind a 2002 blaze that blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes and a fire in 2005 that burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek.

Another major wildfire was burning in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities.

The 163-square-mile Horseshoe Two fire has devoured two summer cabins and four outbuildings since it started May 8.

Firefighters were fortifying containment lines to protect Whitetail and Chiricahua National Monument, and despite hot weather and wind gusts over 35 mph, the 104,000-acre fire did not move significantly toward the lines, incident commanders said late Monday.

The fire danger in tinder-dry Arizona prompted the full closure of the Coronado National Forest near Tucson beginning Thursday.

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Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.