Roughly 7,000 residents of two eastern Arizona towns evacuated last week as a wildfire loomed nearby were allowed to return home Sunday as officials expressed confidence that they were making progress in their battle against the huge blaze that has been burning since May.
"Fire officials feel confident that these areas are safe," Apache County Sheriff's Cmdr. Webb Hogle said, referring to the towns of Springerville and Eagar.
Firefighters remained in both towns, mopping up hot spots and guarding again flare-ups. But Hogle said residents could begin returning home because the blaze was "no longer a threat to the citizens."
About 2,700 other people who live in several resort communities in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest remained under an evacuation order.
On the road into downtown Springerville, a flashing sign read "We missed you, welcome home."
Fire Chief Jerome Macdonald said officials felt confident Sunday they were closer to controlling the entire 693-square-mile inferno that has already burned across the state line into New Mexico, even as the winds picked up considerably and containment remained at just 6 percent.
"Everything is holding," Macdonald said Sunday. "Compared to what we've been dealing with just two days ago ... we're feeling a lot more confident. We turned a corner."
Macdonald said strong winds have actually helped firefighters as the gusts burned off fuel in the central part of the blaze before it reached their fire lines.
About 30 homes and cabins have been destroyed since the fire began May 29.
While the blaze remained perilously close — about four miles away — to two major power lines that bring electricity from Arizona to West Texas, Macdonald said firefighters were able to burn off most of the fuel in between, lessening the risk of disruption.
Officials said about 4,300 people were working to bring the fire under control, and the blaze had so far cost about $27 million to fight.
It is the second-largest in state history, and Macdonald said he didn't it expect it would surpass the state's largest — the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire that burned 732 square miles (1,895 sq. kilometers) and destroyed 491 buildings.
"I think it's going to have a hard time" getting much larger, Macdonald said.
Air quality issues
Meanwhile, officials were still warning residents in the mountain towns, and as far away as Albuquerque and Santa Fe, of severe air quality issues from the smoke.
"Just because you can't see the fire doesn't mean there isn't an effect from the smoke blowing into the state," said Chris Minnick, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health.
Arizona officials warned the towns' residents they should return home only if necessary if they suffer from previous respiratory conditions.
On Saturday, levels of tiny, sooty particles from the smoke in eastern Arizona were nearly 20 times the federal health standard, said Mark Shaffer of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
The microscopic particles, about 1/28th the width of a human hair, can get lodged in the lungs and cause serious health problems, both immediate and long-term, he said.
"Larger particles, you breathe in and you cough and it tends to get rid of it," he said, adding that the tiny particles get "very, very deep into your system and are very difficult to expel."
Late Saturday afternoon, authorities said an evacuation order for about 100 homes in the Escudilla-Bonita Acres subdivision in New Mexico had been lifted. The order had kept residents away from their homes since mid-week.
Firefighters are battling another major wildfire in far southeastern Arizona, also near the New Mexico line. The so-called Horseshoe Two blaze burned through 211 square miles or 135,000 acres of brush and timber since it started in early May. The fire has destroyed 23 structures but caused no serious injuries. It was 45 percent contained and fire officials hope to have it fully contained by late June.