Image: Burned home near Sierra Vista, Ariz.
David Kadlubowski  /  AP
Gayle Gehr along with grandson Nathan Jacob look at their burned home that was destroyed from the Monument Fire near Sierra Vista, Ariz. on Wednesday.
updated 6/23/2011 6:54:07 PM ET 2011-06-23T22:54:07

Wildfires pummeling Arizona cause concern among environmentalists because of the heavy concentration of endangered species such as Mexican spotted owls and gray wolves.

Firefighters nearly had one of three major wildfires in Arizona under control this morning, but mostly because the blaze had already burned through an entire forest, officials said.

The 348-square-mile blaze has churned through the forest atop southeastern Arizona's Chiricahua mountains, said Mary Christensen, a spokeswoman for the team that has battled the huge fire since it broke out May 8. The Chiricahua in the Coronado National Forest is one of the state's so-called "sky island" mountain ranges, which rise from the surrounding desert and grasslands and aren't connected to other ranges.

The forest supports a huge diversity of plants and animals and is a world-renowned bird-watching area. Its juniper, oak, pine and other plant life have helped fuel the fire, which has destroyed nine homes and 14 other buildings.

It has scarred the landscape, but in some places scorched only the undergrowth, Christensen said. The prime bird-watching area known as Cave Creek Canyon, which is home to species from as far south as Chile during the breeding season, was not severely damaged.

"For the most part, the fire was kept to a low enough intensity that the canopy is still there," Christensen said Wednesday. "And we believe that it probably will recover quite easily, and quickly, probably after the rains this season."

As the blaze neared full containment expected by Saturday, thousands of firefighters also made major strides in corralling two other blazes in the wildfire-ravaged state.

They made enough progress on one of them, the largest fire in Arizona history, to allow the return of most of the 10,000 people who were evacuated at one time. The small town of Luna, N.M., also reopened Wednesday.

That fire began May 29 and has burned 828 square miles in eastern Arizona.

Residents near Sierra Vista, Ariz., also returned home after fleeing a 44-square-mile fire in the Huachuca Mountains in southern Arizona. That blaze, which began June 12, has destroyed 57 homes in the area about 15 miles north of the Mexican border.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever told The Associated Press he believed illegal immigrants had started the fire.

Image: Burned Mustang near Sierra Vista
David Kadlubowski  /  AP
Stephanie Jaco looks over her Mustang that was destroyed along with her home from the Monument Fire near Sierra Vista, Ariz. on Wednesday.

"There is no other logical assessment available — not fireworks, not campfires, not someone passing by in a vehicle. It was somebody on foot in a high-intensity foot traffic area," Dever said.

Although crews had more than half the blaze contained, they stopped short of saying they had turned the corner.

"The way I would characterize it is that the momentum is beginning to swing in our direction," said Steve Frye, deputy incident commander for the team fighting the fire. "And we are able to take an offensive rather than a defensive strategy."

USA Today reported that Forest Service officials don't expect full containment until mid-July; the fire is now 59 percent contained.

Billeaud reported from Sierra Vista, Ariz.

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