msnbc.com news services, June 14, 2011
LUNA, N.M. — Fire crews had their hands full with multiple wildfires across the Southwest on Tuesday, including the massive one in eastern Arizona that is now the largest in state history and another inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.
The Wallow fire has burned more than 733 square miles since it began on Memorial Day weekend, officials said Tuesday.
That tops the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 732 square miles, but the key difference is in the destruction and firefighting costs. The 2002 fire destroyed 491 buildings and cost about $400 million to fight.
The current blaze has burned 31 homes and some other structures, and firefighting costs so far are around $25 million.
It has also encroached into New Mexico about a mile from the working-class community of Luna, where residents were warned to be prepared to flee.
Crews worked furiously to protect Luna from the Wallow fire, after a successful weekend of no major fire growth despite gusting winds and dry conditions. Containment grew to 18 percent by Monday evening.
Hundreds of firefighters worked along U.S. Highway 180 between Luna and the state line, hacking down brush, using chain saws to cut trees, and burning fuel in the fire's path.
At Luna Lake in Arizona, just a few miles from town, helicopters collected water and flew west to attack flames sending up thick, gray smoke.
Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher said the roughly 200 Luna residents hadn't yet been ordered to leave, but evacuation plans were in place.
Fire spokesman Sean Johnson said the work crews have done clearing brush and setting their own fires to burn off fuel along the state line has so far spared Luna from the inferno.
"That's what's saved the town," Johnson said. "The line is holding. There's no fire in New Mexico that we haven't set ourselves."
Roughly 7,000 residents of the two Arizona mountain towns of Eagar and Springerville on the fire's northern edge were allowed back home over the weekend. Crews had stopped the blaze's northern advance and were trying to corral its eastern push into New Mexico.
Officials continued to express optimism that their efforts were paying off.
"It's getting better every day," said fire spokesman Kelly Wood.
About 2,700 people who live in several Arizona resort communities in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest remained under an evacuation order. Fire officials said they were working to make the picturesque hamlets of Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer safe for residents to go home, possibly within the week.
Greer, considered the jewel of eastern Arizona's summer havens, lost 18 homes, three cabins and a couple dozen outbuildings as flames moved into the valley last week.
Eyes on other fires
In New Mexico, a wildfire fanned by high winds that has forced hundreds of people from their homes grew to an estimated 24,000 acres.
"We're watching trees explode before our eyes. It's horrendous," said Barbara Riley, a schoolteacher and bed-and-breakfast owner in the northeastern community of Raton. A 20-mile section of the main north-south highway through New Mexico and Colorado remained closed, causing hundreds of travelers to drive hours out of their way.
The wildfire started Sunday on the west side of Interstate 25 and jumped to the east side later that day. Up to 1,000 people were asked to leave their homes northeast of Raton.
The fire prompted the closure of I-25 from Trinidad, Colo., to Raton, sending summer motorists on lengthy detours. Fire officials said at least two structures had burned, but they couldn't say whether they were homes, businesses or outbuildings.
"It looks like your worst nightmare," Raton Mayor Neil Segotta said after he saw the plume of smoke rising from the hills outside the city.
On Monday, a wildfire inside Carlsbad Caverns forced the 250 visitors there to flee. By Tuesday, the 300 residents of nearby White's City were also told to leave as the fire exploded to 16,000 acres.
As of Tuesday afternoon, firefighters had managed to carve a containment line around 10 percent of the fire's perimeter but were hampered by 100-degree heat, sustained winds of 30 miles per hour and extremely low humidity.
"It's hot, dry and windy," fire information officer Jennifer Myslivy told Reuters.
Other wildfires included:
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
msnbc.com news services, June 9, 2011
SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — Fire crews worked through the night to protect several Arizona mountain communities from a growing forest fire that has forced thousands from their homes and threatens transmission lines that supply electricity as far east as Texas.
The 607-square-mile blaze, the second largest ever in Arizona, is expected to reach the power lines as early as Friday. If the lines are damaged, hundreds of thousands in parts of New Mexico and Texas could face rolling blackouts.
Meanwhile, crews were hopeful that they could slow the fire Thursday if weather predictions hold true. After a few days of driving winds, there was no high-wind warning issued for Thursday.
However, fire officials spoke guardedly late Wednesday as they faced the 12th day of the fire fight.
"Don't get complacent just because we don't have a red flag warning. Ten to 15 mph winds are good winds to drive fire, especially through grass, so we're going to have to be very careful," fire information officer Jim Whittington said at a late night briefing Wednesday at a rest stop on the edge of Springerville.
Residents remaining in Springerville and the neighboring community of Eagar were evacuated Wednesday as a spot fire popped up on the northwestern edge of the Wallow Fire. That caused officials to worry about the prospect of the fire hooking around a bulldozer line and a burned out area and racing toward town.
Apache County sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement officers went house-to-house in Springerville looking for any remaining residents.
According to The Arizona Republic, a flier issued by the sheriff's office warned:: "There may be no opportunity for first responders to return and check on you."
"Consider this notice your final warning to leave."
About 7,000 people live in Springerville, Eagar and surrounding areas, although many already had left before the sheriff ordered the full evacuation.
Fire information officer Peter Frenzen told the newspaper that if the fire ramps up in the area, "it'll throw bigger embers that'll last longer." Firefighters were "looking at the worst-case scenario, where they're moving through neighborhoods extinguishing spot fires," the report quoted him as saying.
At Reed's Lodge along Springerville's main street, Daric Knight was still there late Wednesday afternoon to make sure no embers landed on the wood shingles at the front or elsewhere on the property. Knight's family has owned the lodge for decades.
"I've seen lots of fires, but nothing like this," he said.
The blaze has blackened about 389,000 acres and destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. No serious injuries have been reported.
Whittington said the fire did grow Wednesday, but an updated acreage figure wouldn't be available until Thursday morning.
Firefighters planned to assess the area at daybreak, particularly around the mountain resort community of Greer, and would know then whether any additional structures had burned.
Captain Jim Wilkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire official, said it was too soon to know how many of several hundred homes in the town were lost, but "we do know the fire burned through there."
Greer resident Bob Pollock told The Arizona Republic that he was hopeful he could ride out the worst of the fires, and even signed a waiver despite an order to evacuate. But by midday Wednesday, the smoke "had come much closer and had turned an ominous color of orange and black."
He told the newspaper that as he left town, he could see flames on the town's eastern ridge.
Firefighters had spent the past two days trying to create a line where they could defend the towns. They used bulldozers to scrape off vegetation and hand crews to remove other fuels. The line hasn't been breached, but officials were still worried about spot fires.
Crews on the ground have had help from more than a dozen helicopters. More help will be available from the air Thursday, when a 747 super tanker was expected to arrive.
The fire prompted Texas-based El Paso Electric to issue warnings of possible power interruptions for its customers in southern New Mexico and West Texas.
The company uses two high voltage lines to bring electricity from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix to the two states. Losing the lines would cut off about 40 percent of the utility's supply, possibly triggering the rolling blackouts among its 372,000 customers.
The blaze, burning in mainly ponderosa pine forest, was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire. It became the second-largest in Arizona history on Tuesday.
It has cast smoke as far east as Iowa and forced some planes to divert from Albuquerque, N.M., some 200 miles away.
Officials in Catron County, N.M., told residents of Luna to be prepared to leave if winds push the blaze into western New Mexico.
Thousands of firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, are helping. Their focus includes protecting the mountain towns, including Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer.
Whittington said Wednesday was a rough in the Greer area when flames raced down the canyon and forced firefighters to change positions.
"It was pretty hairy. The firefighters did a good job," he said.
With a blaze as large as this being driven by unpredictable and gusty winds, putting the fire out is a gargantuan task. All fire managers can do is try to steer it away from homes and cabins by using natural terrain, burning out combustible material first and trying to put out spot fires sparked by embers blowing in front of the main fire front.
"We have a fire fight on our hands. It's going to be tough and we're going to be here a while," Whittington said.
Another major wildfire was burning in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities. The 181-square-mile Horseshoe Two fire has devoured 14 structures, including three summer cabins since it started May 8. Fire officials say the 116,000-acre blaze is 40 percent contained.
Arizona's largest blaze came in 2002 when flames blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes west of the current fire. A fire in 2005 burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek and consumed 11 homes.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.