By BOB CHRISTIE Associated Press
PHOENIX — Lighter winds should give firefighters in southern Arizona a break Monday after a weekend in which thousands of residents fled their homes as powerful winds pushed the flames across roads and containment lines and toward populated areas.
The Monument fire just south of the city of Sierra Vista, Ariz., was one of several chewing through dry brush and timber in the Arizona and New Mexico where fire crews have been dogged for days by hot, windy weather.
About 3,000 people from 1,700 homes were evacuated Sunday as the blaze — burning for a week — picked up speed with winds gusted up to 60 mph, Cochise County sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas said late Sunday night.
"Winds pushed fire across Highway 92, making (it) run so fast and so hot that the danger to citizens in the path was significant," she told The Associated Press.
The flames raced down a mountain and into a heavily populated area, forcing crews to abandon their lines and set up in new spots.
"The fire crews are doing an amazing job, trying to get in front of it," she said.
Sunday's evacuations brought the total number to about 10,000 people from 4,300 homes forced to flee flames of the Monument fire, she said.
Some residences were destroyed Sunday, adding to the 44 already reported, but fire officials still don't have an exact number, Capas said. Among the destroyed structures was a popular Mexican restaurant. There have been no serious injuries.
She said evacuees have been staying with friends and relatives, at three evacuation shelters, and at local inns.
"This is horrible. This is a nightmare," Debbie Schmidlin told the Arizona Daily Star. She said she was evacuated twice in the past week from homes east and west of Highway 92.
"If this fire gets there, I'm leaving Arizona," she said as she watched from behind police lines two miles north of her home.
Mario Morales, who has a mobile home on land he owns on the east side of 92, was philosophical. "You just gotta accept it," he told the newspaper. "There is no stopping this monster."
Winds had diminished by late Sunday and were projected to reach just 10 mph Monday.
"If that prediction holds, it will be a big benefit for firefighters," she said.
Before the winds spread the flames earlier in the day, the blaze was reported 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres or nearly 33 square miles.
Meanwhile, the massive Wallow fire that has been burning in eastern Arizona for three weeks kept about 200 residents of Luna, N.M., under an evacuation order for a second day.
A containment line that had held through days of high winds was breached Saturday and the fire raced toward town before shifting winds steered it around the community. It was moving to the north into an area of scattered ranches late Sunday afternoon, fire information officer Michael Puentes said.
Despite the evacuation order for Luna, about half the town's residents remained in town.
"If the fire comes back around or things change where they have to get out, we still have an egress point, so we will still escort them out of town," Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher said.
Evacuation orders for Luna came on the same day that some other residents displaced by the fire that began May 29 were allowed to return home.
Residents of Alpine, Ariz., were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning after being forced out for more than two weeks, while residents of the resort town of Greer, Ariz., will be allowed to return home late Monday morning.
The Wallow blaze has consumed 811 square miles, or 519,319 acres, and more than 3,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. It is larger than a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings that had been the largest in state history. Despite its size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins. Containment rose to 51 percent Sunday.
The Wallow fire, which is burning up much of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, is the largest of several wildfires burning in spots across the southwestern United States.
In other fires:
_ Firefighters working to contain a massive wildfire in East Texas expected unusually hot and windy weather Monday, a day after several blazes broke out across the state and destroyed more than three dozen homes. Hundreds of people were told to evacuate after fires swept through eastern and central parts of the state.
_ California firefighters are battling a wildfire that has burned nearly 8 square miles of grassland on a westward run from a Kern County oil field to a remote area of eastern San Luis Obispo County. One structure has been destroyed. The blaze was 20 percent contained early Monday and had burned 5,068 acres since it started Sunday evening.
_ A fire burning nine miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., had burned about 3,000 acres by Monday and was being driven northeast into the Pecos Wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service said. The fire broke out Saturday and was not threatening any structures.
_ A new wildfire ignited Sunday in north-central Arizona that officials said could threaten power lines running to Phoenix as well as some scattered ranches in coming days. Eric Nietel, spokesman for the Show Low fire department, said late Sunday night that the blaze, about 40 miles northeast of Payson, Ariz., had burned about 500 acres.
_ Another wildfire in Cochise County, Ariz., called Horseshoe Two was 75 percent contained after charring about 210,000 acres — nearly 330 square miles. It has destroyed 23 structures since it started May 8.
_ A fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border outside of Raton, N.M., was 80 percent contained and evacuations had all been lifted. The fire apparently was started June 12 by engine exhaust from an all-terrain vehicle trespassing on railroad property.
_ Authorities in southern New Mexico were looking for "persons of interest" as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso, N.M.