Crews protect resort town from massive Ariz. fire - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Crews protect resort town from massive Ariz. fire

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An emergency vehicle is seen as smoke from the Wallow Fire covers highway 60 in Springerville, Ariz., Thursday, June 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) An emergency vehicle is seen as smoke from the Wallow Fire covers highway 60 in Springerville, Ariz., Thursday, June 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and BOB CHRISTIE, Associated Press

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. – Fire crews working feverishly overnight managed to protect most of a mountain resort town threatened by a massive wildfire in eastern Arizona, but some homes were lost, officials said Thursday.

Fire information officer Suzanne Flory said overnight operations went well, particularly in the community of Greer, where the blaze had made a significant run Wednesday.

"Firefighters had a good stand and were able to protect the main part of town, but structures were lost," Flory said.

At least a half-dozen homes or cabins burned as the fire moved through the east side of Greer, said Jim Whittington, another fire spokesman.

On Thursday, crews remained in the picturesque valley protecting hundreds of homes, cabins and lodges.

Winds were expected to blow toward the east instead of the northeast later in the day, and that could challenge efforts to contain that flank of the fire, which has spread to within a half-mile of the New Mexico line.

"We know it's going to grow today, because there's a lot of uncontrolled fire line out there, there's a lot of heat out there and there's a lot of vegetation," Whittington said.

An air tanker and helicopters were to be joined by a DC-10 that can lay a line of retardant 100 yards wide and a mile and a half long to beef up lines around the resort community, which was still in danger.

"I just thank God I haven't heard of any injuries, and thank God they were able to stay in there and do what they can to protect Greer - it's such a beautiful area," said Allan Johnson, who owns Molly Butler Lodge and manages dozens of rental cabins there.

Based on better mapping, federal officials released an updated size of the massive blaze that started May 29 and has prompted the evacuation of several mountain communities.

The fire has scorched 525 square miles, mostly in ponderosa pine forest, down from 607 square miles reported Wednesday. It remained the second-largest fire in Arizona's history.

Fires officials said there appears to be no immediate threat to power lines carrying electricity from Arizona to New Mexico and west Texas. But a fiber-optic line could be damaged, cutting phone, cell phone and Internet service to the area around the fire.

In New Mexico, many residents in the community of Luna said they chose to stay even after being told to prepare to flee. Many mowed or watered lawns and removed debris, while crews bulldozed lines and set backfires to build a border of fire protection.

Crews also were concentrating on Nutrioso, where the fire was active the day before. Flory said they should be helped by weaker wind gusts.

"We expect to have less wind, less chance for growth and less spotting," Flory said.

A spot fire at the edge of the larger blaze prompted the few residents left in Springerville and the neighboring community of Eagar to flee. 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 remaining residents. About 7,000 people live in Springerville, Eagar and surrounding areas, although many had left before the sheriff ordered the full evacuation.

At Reed's Lodge along Springerville's main street Wednesday, Daric Knight made sure no embers landed on his wood shingles. Knight's family has owned the lodge for decades.

"I've seen lots of fires, but nothing like this," he said.

The blaze destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, before the losses in Greer. No serious injuries have been reported.

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 worried about spot fires.

The blaze was sparked by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire.

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.

Another major wildfire was burning in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities. That 181-square-mile blaze 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.

More than 200 miles of highways are closed due to several major wildfires burning in the state. A blaze in northern Arizona, near the mountain city of Flagstaff, forced evacuations Wednesday of about 50 homes.

On Thursday, authorities arrested a 20-year-old man suspected of intentionally setting that fire. The man turned himself in and was being held without bond on one count of burning of a wildland.

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.

In Colorado, at least five wildfires threatened sparsely populated areas in the southern part of the state. Officials say a subdivision in Teller County has been evacuated.

Sheriff's officials said 17 homes were being threatened but none have been destroyed.

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Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Mark Carlson in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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Susan Montoya Bryan can be reached at http://twitter.com/susanmbryanNM