Ariz. fire tops 365 square miles, threatens NM town

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

More evacuations were ordered Monday as Arizona's third largest wildfire on record threatened new areas, including a New Mexico town. Officials also revised upwards their estimate of the burn size, now saying that it covers 365 square miles, up from 301 square miles earlier Monday.

Those who hadn't already left the towns of Greer and Sunrise were ordered out Monday afternoon. Earlier, residents of several subdivisions along highways 180 and 191 in eastern Arizona had cleared out, while residents of Luna, N.M., were told they could face mandatory evacuation orders if conditions worsen. Winds of about 30 mph, with gusts above 60 mph, blew heavy smoke from the fire.

"It's heartbreaking," Allan Johnson, owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge in Greer, the oldest in the state, said of the fire barreling down on the resort town. He was pessimistic about the chances of saving the lodge and the hundreds of vacation homes in the area.

The fire has sent smoke and haze across five states and as far east as Iowa.

Robert Joseph rides his all terrain vehicles along U.S. Route 180 as smoke from the Wallow Wildfire fills the sky in Luna, New Mexico, June 6, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Lott Joshua Lott / X01971

Crews were expected to encounter tough conditions, including lightning storms with no rain, over the next few days.

"We anticipate that the current dry and windy conditions will lead to several difficult days of firefighting ahead," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

Authorities believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze.

About 2,000 people fled Alpine and Nutrioso late last week and headed to larger towns for shelter.

So far, the flames have destroyed five buildings and scorched 233,522 acres of ponderosa pine forest. No serious injuries have been reported. The blaze nearly doubled in size between Saturday and Monday.

Late Monday, a huge pall of black smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eager and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people, and sheriff's officials told residents there to prepare to leave.

The winds and expected lightning storms may make matters worse in an area dotted with cabins and campgrounds that have long provided a cool summer getaway from the oppressive heat of the nearby desert.

Roughly 2,500 firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, are working to contain the wildfires, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.

Brewer signed an emergency declaration Monday that will allow the use of $200,000 in emergency funds and authorizes the mobilization of the National Guard if it becomes necessary.

She praised the work of the federal government in fighting the flames.

"The federal government has stepped up and done their job and we believe we have everything that is necessary at this point in time to keep everything under control," Brewer said.

Brewer also praised the firefighters battling the fires.

"We feel at this point in time that all the boots that are necessary are on the ground now," she said.

Smoke from the wildfire spread to nearby states, and as many as 1,000 miles away. A ridge of high pressure was carrying the haze to central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver.

The smoke was visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Fredin said the smoke wouldn't be noticeable in the Midwest, where humidity already makes conditions hazy. He said it could, however, produce striking orange-pink sunrises and sunsets.

In eastern Colorado, the haze obscured the view of the mountains from downtown Denver and prompted some municipal health departments to issue air quality warnings.

In Arizona, the fire and heavy smoke created pea-soup visibility, forcing the closure of several roads, including about a two-mile stretch of Highway 180 between Alpine and the New Mexico line, Frenzen said.

People in the other vacation towns packed up their belongings as smoke covered them in a smoky fog.

At least one building was lost when the blaze crept into a subdivision of ranch homes near the New Mexico border, fire information officer Eric Neitzel said. Last week, four summer rental cabins were destroyed.

Alpine has been under mandatory evacuation orders since Thursday night, along with the community of Nutrioso and several lodges and camps in the scenic high country.

In Greer, located within miles of the fire, many people by Sunday had voluntarily left the town that has fewer than 200 year-round residents. Those who remained, mostly business owners, dealt with a mountain valley filled with smoke.

Among them Allan Johnson, owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge.

He spent Sunday morning getting antiques, including an 1886 table brought by covered wagon from Utah and a 1928 Oldsmobile the lodge uses for weddings, out of the fire's path.

A 1928 Oldsmobile sedan sits in a flatbed trailer as Allan Johnson, right, and Larry Duffy move furniture as they evacuate their home in Greer, Ariz., Sunday, June 5, 2011. Crews used controlled backfires early Sunday to blunt the advance of a major wildfire near mountain communities in eastern Arizona, a blaze termed "absolutely frightening" by the state's governor that has already burned through 225 square miles of forest and brush. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)Jae C. Hong / AP

Johnson said he was not taking reservations but was keeping the restaurant open, mainly as a meeting place.

Firefighters have, so far, kept the flames out of Alpine and Nutrioso. Residents of the New Mexico town of Luna, about 15 miles east of Alpine, were warned Monday to be prepared to evacuate if the fire closes in.

The fire is the state's third-largest, behind a 2002 blaze that blackened more than 732 square miles and one in 2005 that burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek.

The state also has another major wildfire, its fifth-largest, in southeastern Arizona that threatened two communities.

Air crews dumped water and retardant near a Methodist church camp as the 156-square-mile blaze burned around the evacuated camp in the steep Pine Canyon near the community of Paradise.

Paradise, as well as East Whitetail Canyon, was evacuated in advance and the nearby Chiricahua National Monument was closed as a precaution. Crews kept the blaze from about a dozen occupied homes and other vacation residences.

Two summer cabins and four outbuildings were consumed by flames in recent days but weren't reported earlier because crews couldn't reach them to assess damage, fire management spokeswoman Karen Ripley said.

Ripley said that the 100,000-acre fire held steady throughout Sunday.

"They did quite well in holding the fire today," Ripley said.

Crews will deal with the same threatening weather conditions on Monday that are worrying the firefighters on the Wallow fire.