Winds challenge crews battling AZ, NM wildfires

By The Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — Crews battled a pair of wildfires Sunday in the face of extremely high winds that officials feared could drive flames toward small towns in Arizona and New Mexico as firefighters tried to protect threatened homes.

The massive Wallow Fire that has been burning in eastern Arizona for three weeks breached a containment line along Highway 180 on Saturday and the homes of about 200 Luna residents remained under an evacuation order, with forecasts of 40- to 50-mph wind gusts renewing fire threats for the community.

Despite the evacuation order, about half of Luna’s residents remained in town. They have been told to stay off the roads so they don’t get in the way of fire crews, Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher said. Few people went to a Red Cross shelter set up in Reserve, N.M.

“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,” Fletcher said. “We’re expected high winds this afternoon — we’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

The Wallow Fire burning up much of Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona is the largest of several wildfires burning in spots across the southwestern United States.

With summer rains still weeks away, forecasters said fire crews in much of Arizona and New Mexico would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that has dogged them for days.

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.

The Wallow blaze has consumed nearly 800 square miles, a little more than 511,000 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 44 percent Sunday.

In southern Arizona, a wildfire south of Sierra Vista jumped containment lines, prompting authorities to order new evacuations

Fire spokesman Bill Paxton said Sunday afternoon that all pre-evacuation notices have been converted into mandatory evacuations.

The Monument fire has already forced nearly 7,000 people to flee 2,600 homes. At least 44 homes have already been lost.

The blaze has burned nearly 33 square miles or 21,000 acres since it broke out on June 12. On Sunday, about 1,000 firefighters were on the lines trying to make a stand in the face of fierce wind gusts that had limited the use of aircraft to fight the fire. Winds were blowing steadily at about 30 mph with gusts on the ridges of about 50 mph.

The blaze had remained 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres, or nearly 33 square miles.

Residents of Alpine, Ariz., were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning after being forced out by the Wallow Fire for more than two weeks, but residents of the resort town of Greer still remained evacuated.

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who owns a home in Greer, toured the fire area Saturday along with Sen. John McCain and Arizona congressmen Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar.

“Seeing a terrible fire like this is always a wakeup call,” Flake, a Republican who represents Arizona’s 6th district, said in a statement. “Our forest health policies need an overhaul. … In the short term, we need to address regulations that hamper timber salvage in the burnt areas. In the long term, we need to enter into public-private partnerships in order to improve the health of these forests by thinning them.”

Meanwhile, the remaining evacuations from a fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border were lifted Saturday morning for residents of communities outside of Raton, N.M.

Containment on the nearly 28,000-acre Track Fire jumped to 80 percent Sunday morning and fire officials said existing fire lines were holding despite strong winds in the area.

Investigators from New Mexico State Forestry and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway said Saturday that fire apparently was started June 12 by engine exhaust from an all-terrain vehicle.

They said the rider was trespassing onto land owned by BNSF railway through access from nearby private property. The Colfax County Sheriff’s Department was seeking information on the person or persons riding or operating ATVs near the origin of the fire.

Another wildfire in Cochise County, Ariz., called the Horseshoe Two was 75 percent contained after charring about 210,000 acres — nearly 330 square miles.

A fire burning 9 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., had burned about 900 acres by Sunday morning and was being driven northeast into the Pecos Wilderness, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Alberta Maez said. The fire broke out Saturday and was not threatening any structures, but hikers and residents In the Santa Fe Ski Basin, Aspen Basin, Aspen Vista, and Big Tesuque were told to be ready to leave is necessary.

U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell visited the Arizona fire operations Saturday to assess the progress.

All of the Arizona wildfires are believed to be human caused. Investigators believe a campfire was the most likely cause of the Wallow fire.

Authorities in southern New Mexico were also looking for “persons of interest” as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso.

Also around the West, fires still were burning near Yakima, Wash., and in southern Colorado. A wildfire near St. George, Utah, was fully contained after scorching more than 1,000 acres of federal and stare rangelands.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.