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Crews protect resort town from Ariz. wildfires

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

A massive wildfire that has displaced as many as 11,000 people in eastern Arizona held steady in size on Thursday, and fire officials said they hoped weaker winds and cooler temperatures would help in their fight.

But the Wallow Fire, which has charred at least 336,000 acres of thick, tinder-dry pine forest since erupting May 29, posed a new threat to power lines supplying electricity to Tucson, Arizona, some 200 miles to the southwest, and to El Paso, Texas, about 200 miles to the southeast.

"We know it's going to grow today, because there's a lot of uncontrolled fire line out there, there's a lot of heat out there and there's a lot of vegetation," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Whittington.

The blaze, believed to have started from a campfire left unattended, cut through the popular White Mountains retreat of Greer on Wednesday, though fire crews managed to limit property losses there to six dwellings, fire officials said.

Crews remained in the picturesque valley protecting hundreds of homes, cabins and lodges. The total number of firefighters battling the fire was raised to over 3,000 on Thursday, from 2,000 the day before.

Winds were expected to blow toward the east instead of the northeast later in the day, and that could challenge efforts to contain that flank of the fire, which has spread to within a half-mile of the New Mexico line.

Although the Wallow ranks as the second-largest wildfire on record in Arizona, belching out palls of smoke that drifted across several states as far east as Iowa, no serious injuries have been reported. Property damage has been relatively light, with authorities reporting just 11 structures destroyed in all.

Governor Janet Brewer, who declared a state of emergency in two counties, put the total number of Wallow Fire evacuees at as many as 3,000 before Springerville and Eager were emptied.

Brewer said in a statement that she had spoken about the fire threat on Thursday with President Barack Obama, who she said "promised to provide as much federal support as needed to protect life, limb and property."

A handful of additional mountain hamlets west of Arizona's border with New Mexico have remained empty since their residents were ordered to leave days ago.

The easternmost flank of the blaze was still about a mile from the New Mexico line, and several small towns in that state have been placed on alert for possible evacuations.

'Thank God'
An air tanker and helicopters were to be joined by a DC-10 that can lay a line of retardant 100 yards wide and a mile and a half long to beef up lines around the resort community, which was still in danger.

"I just thank God I haven't heard of any injuries, and thank God they were able to stay in there and do what they can to protect Greer — it's such a beautiful area," said Allan Johnson, who owns Molly Butler Lodge and manages dozens of rental cabins there.

Based on better mapping, federal officials released an updated size of the massive blaze that started May 29 and has prompted the evacuation of several mountain communities.

The burned area from Arizona's massive wildfire is seen in this satellite-based image.USGS

In New Mexico, many residents in the community of Luna said they chose to stay even after being told to prepare to flee. Many mowed or watered lawns and removed debris, while crews bulldozed lines and set backfires to build a border of fire protection.

Crews also were concentrating on Nutrioso, where the fire was active the day before. Flory said they should be helped by weaker wind gusts.

"We expect to have less wind, less chance for growth and less spotting," Flory said.

A spot fire at the edge of the larger blaze prompted the few residents left in Springerville and the neighboring community of Eagar to flee. That caused officials to worry about the prospect of the fire hooking around a bulldozer line and a burned-out area and racing toward town.

Apache County sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement officers went house-to-house in Springerville looking for remaining residents. About 7,000 people live in Springerville, Eagar and surrounding areas, although many had left before the sheriff ordered the full evacuation.

'Nothing like this'
At Reed's Lodge along Springerville's main street Wednesday, Daric Knight made sure no embers landed on his wood shingles. Knight's family has owned the lodge for decades.

"I've seen lots of fires, but nothing like this," he said.

The blaze destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, before the losses in Greer. No serious injuries have been reported.

Firefighters had spent the past two days trying to create a line where they could defend the towns. They used bulldozers to scrape off vegetation and hand crews to remove other fuels. The line hasn't been breached, but officials were worried about spot fires.

The blaze was sparked by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire.

With a blaze as large as this being driven by unpredictable and gusty winds, putting the fire out is a gargantuan task. All fire managers can do is try to steer it away from homes and cabins by using natural terrain, burning out combustible material first and trying to put out spot fires sparked by embers blowing in front of the main fire front.

Another major wildfire was burning in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities. That 181-square-mile blaze has devoured 14 structures, including three summer cabins since it started May 8. Fire officials say the 116,000-acre blaze is 40 percent contained.

More than 200 miles of highways are closed due to several major wildfires burning in the state. A blaze in northern Arizona, near the mountain city of Flagstaff, forced evacuations Wednesday of about 50 homes.

On Thursday, authorities arrested a 20-year-old man suspected of intentionally setting that fire. The man turned himself in and was being held without bond on one count of burning of a wildland.

Arizona's largest blaze came in 2002 when flames blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes west of the current fire. A fire in 2005 burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek and consumed 11 homes.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.