Arizona forest fire expands to 233,000 acres - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Arizona forest fire expands to 233,000 acres

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Fire trucks leave a firefighter base camp set up near Eagar, Ariz., to battle the Wallow fire on Monday, June 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Fire trucks leave a firefighter base camp set up near Eagar, Ariz., to battle the Wallow fire on Monday, June 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and BOB CHRISTIE, Associated Press

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. – 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.

Strong winds and lightning storms were expected to make matters worse in an area dotted with cabins and campgrounds that have long provided a cool summer getaway from the oppressive heat of the nearby desert.

Lighter winds a day earlier sent embers flying as far as three miles and triggered a series of spot fires.

The fire had grown to nearly 365 square miles, officials said. Authorities believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze more than a week ago.

So far, the flames have destroyed five buildings and scorched 233,522 acres of ponderosa pine forest. No serious injuries have been reported. The blaze nearly doubled in size between Saturday and Monday.

About 2,000 people fled Alpine and Nutrioso late last week and headed to larger towns for shelter.

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

A ridge of high pressure was carrying the haze to central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver. The smoke was visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Fredin said the smoke wouldn't be noticeable in the Midwest, where humidity already makes conditions hazy. He said it could, however, produce striking orange-pink sunrises and sunsets.

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, the fire and heavy smoke created pea-soup visibility, forcing the closure of several roads, including about a two-mile stretch of Highway 180 between Alpine and the New Mexico line, Frenzen said.

People in the other vacation towns packed up their belongings as smoke covered them in a smoky fog.

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Supervisor Chris Knopp speculated at a community meeting on Friday that an abandoned campfire was responsible for the fire.

The Apache County sheriff's office told an unknown number of people in several subdivisions east of Alpine along U.S. Highway 180 to get out as the forest fire crept closer on Sunday.

At least one building was lost when the blaze crept into a subdivision of ranch homes near the New Mexico border, fire information officer Eric Neitzel said. Last week, four summer rental cabins were destroyed.

Alpine 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.

In Greer, Ariz., located within miles of the fire, many people have voluntarily left the town that has fewer than 200 year-round residents. Those who remained, mostly business owners, dealt with a mountain valley filled with smoke.

Among them Allan Johnson, owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge.

He 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.

Johnson said he was not taking reservations but was keeping the restaurant open, mainly as a meeting place.

Fire officials expect the fire will grow given a windy forecast and expected dry lightning 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."

Firefighters have, so far, kept the flames out of Alpine and Nutrioso. Residents of the New Mexico town of Luna, about 15 miles east of Alpine, were warned Monday to be prepared to evacuate if the fire closes in.

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

Another major wildfire, the state's fifth-largest, burned in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities.

Air crews dumped water and retardant near a Methodist church camp as the 156-square-mile blaze burned around the evacuated camp in the steep Pine Canyon near the community of Paradise.

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

Two summer cabins and four outbuildings were consumed by flames in recent days but weren't reported earlier because crews couldn't reach them to assess damage, fire management spokeswoman Karen Ripley said.

Ripley said that the 100,000-acre fire held steady throughout Sunday.

"They did quite well in holding the fire today," Ripley said.

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Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin contributed from Denver.