Winds to challenge crews battling US wildfires

Updated: 2011-06-20 10:00


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PHOENIX - Extremely high winds are expected to challenge firefighters trying to protect homes threatened by a pair of fires in southern and eastern Arizona on Sunday.

Winds to challenge crews battling US wildfires
Smoke from the Pacheco Canyon Wildfire rises behind the Buffalo Thunder Casino in Pojoaque, New Mexico June 19, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]

The small New Mexico town of Luna is in the path of the massive Wallow Fire burning in eastern Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Fire breached a containment line along Highway 180 on Saturday and about 200 residents were ordered to evacuate and remained out of their homes Sunday.

The evacuation order came on the same day that some other residents displaced by the fire that began May 29 were allowed to return home.

The threat to Luna lessened late Saturday but was expected to return Sunday afternoon as wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph (64 to 80 kph) were expected to drive the flames.

Only about half the town's residents actually left, and the rest 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 Sunday. Few people went to a Red Cross shelter set up in Reserve, New Mexico.

The blaze has consumed nearly 800 square miles (2,072 square kilometers), a little more than 511,000 acres (206,800 hectares), and more than 3,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. The blaze is larger than a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles (1,895 square kilometers) 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 (85 square kilometers) or 21,000 acres (8,500 hectares) 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 (50 kph) with gusts on the ridges of about 50 mph (80 kph). The blaze remained 27 percent contained.

Residents of Alpine, Arizona, 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.

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, New Mexico.

Containment on the nearly 28,000-acre (11,330-hectare) 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, Arizona, called the Horseshoe Two was 75 percent contained after charring about 210,000 acres (85,000 hectares) _ nearly 330 square miles (855 square kilometers).

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

More fires were burning north of Santa Fe, New Mexico; near Yakima, Washington state, and in southern Colorado.

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