2,300 firefighters battle 906 sq km fire in Arizona

Published:  07 June, 2011

A wildfire that has charred more than 350 square miles in eastern Arizona forced the evacuation of a third town on Monday and crept near populated areas along the New Mexico border as it raged out of control for a ninth day, writes David Schwartz (Reuters).

Dogged by fierce winds and low humidity, some 2,300 firefighters battled flames in and around the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest that sent smoke billowing across several states, as far east as Iowa.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency on Monday in two counties -- Apache and Greenlee - in the rugged White Mountains region.

Fire information spokesman Deryl Jevons said gale-force wind gusts were making conditions especially difficult. "That's going to create some significant fire activity this afternoon," he told Reuters.

The so-called Wallow Fire, burning about 250 miles (400 km) northeast of Phoenix and stretching to near the Arizona-New Mexico border, ranks as the third-largest fire on record in Arizona.

As of Monday, containment of the blaze remained at zero, but fire officials were hoping to make some gains by Thursday or Friday, said Matt Benson, a spokesman for the governor, after she was briefed on the situation.

"It's entirely dependent on weather conditions in that part of the state right now," he said.    Casting an orange glow in the sky that could be seen for miles, the blaze has blackened nearly 234,000 acres, or 364 square miles (943 sq km), of forest land since erupting on May 29, according to state fire authorities.

On Monday afternoon, authorities ordered the evacuation of Greer, Arizona, a popular summer retreat in the region that is home to about 200 permanent residents, said Sergeant Richard Guinn, a spokesman for the Apache County Sheriff's Office.

"The fire has continued to progress to a trigger point, so deputies are evacuating Greer as we speak," he told Reuters.

Several hundred residents of the nearby towns of Alpine and Nutrioso were ordered from their homes on Thursday, with no estimate given for when they would be permitted to return. Four smaller housing developments were evacuated on Sunday.

Residents in the town of Luna, just over the New Mexico line, were told to stand by for possible evacuation orders should the blaze get too close, authorities said.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 firefighters continued to make gains on Monday against a separate large wildfire burning in the southeastern part of the state.

Officials said the Horseshoe 2 Fire had consumed more than 100,000 acres (40,470 hectares) and prompted the evacuation of two small communities there. That fire was listed as 55 percent contained.

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