IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Wildfire battle turns to protecting NM town

/ Source: The Associated Press

Crews battling a massive wildfire in eastern Arizona for two weeks shifted their focus Monday to New Mexico, where they lit fires to stifle flare-ups that skipped along treetops threatening a small mountain town.

In the opposite corner of New Mexico, near the Colorado border, a wildfire that had already forced hundreds of people from their homes more than doubled in size to an estimated 6,000 acres, or 9 square miles.

"We're watching trees explode before our eyes. It's horrendous," said Barbara Riley, a schoolteacher and bed-and-breakfast owner in the northeastern New Mexico community of Raton.

That blaze has closed 20 miles of the main north-south highway through New Mexico and Colorado, sending travelers hours out of their way.

At the Wallow fire Monday, crews worked furiously to protect the working-class mountain town of Luna, N.M., after a successful weekend of no major fire growth.

Hundreds of firefighters worked alongside U.S. Highway 180 between Luna and the state line, hacking down brush and using chain saws to cut down trees. The other side of the road was blackened from the fires they set to clear a break.

At Luna Lake in Arizona, a steady stream of helicopters sucked up water and flew west to attack flames sending up a huge plume of thick, gray smoke from the pines. Fire officials said the flare-up was in the tree crowns, an ominous sign that the fire was gaining. It was still more than three miles from Luna.

Earlier Monday, Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher said he had not ordered the 200 or so residents of Luna to leave, but had a plan in case it was needed.

Fire spokesman Sean Johnson said the work crews have done clearing brush and setting their own fires to burn off fuel along the state line has so far spared Luna from the inferno.

"That's what's saved the town," Johnson said. "The line is holding. There's no fire in New Mexico that we haven't set ourselves."

Residents of two Arizona towns on the fire's northern edge were allowed to go back home Sunday, and thousands streamed into Eagar and Springerville through the day. Crews have stopped its northern advance and are now trying to corral its eastern advance into New Mexico by burning a line in front of the fire that it can't cross.

The wildfire near the New Mexico-Colorado border started Sunday on the west side of Interstate 25 and then jumped to the east side. Between 800 and 1,000 people were asked overnight to leave their homes northeast of Raton.

The fire prompted the closure of I-25 from Trinidad, Colo., to Raton, sending summer motorists on lengthy detours. Fire officials confirmed that two structures were burned, but they could not say whether they were homes, businesses or outbuildings.

The blaze more than doubled in size in a matter of hours Monday, to about 9 square miles, as crews worked to protect evacuated homes and businesses.

Of the plume of smoke rising from the hills outside his town, Raton Mayor Neil Segotta said: "It looks like your worst nightmare."

The Wallow fire, burning since Memorial Day, had grown to 706 square miles, or more than 452,000 acres, by Monday morning and was just 10 percent contained. But firefighters have been sounding increasingly confident at their daily briefings that their efforts were paying off.

The Wallow fire is the second largest in state history, although it has burned only 31 homes and four rental cabins, a fraction of the largest. That fire was the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski, which burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings.

Although about 7,000 residents of Eagar and Springerville were allowed to go home, about 2,700 others who live in several Arizona resort communities in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest remained under an evacuation order.

The hamlets of Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer were the largest, and fire officials said Monday they were working to make the areas safe for residents to go home, possibly later this week.

The dangers include burned trees that could snap or blow over in winds, said Mark Wade, commanding the fire effort in Greer.

That town, considered the jewel of eastern Arizona's summer havens, lost more than 20 homes as flame moved into the valley last week. It includes lodges and hundreds of old and new cabins, including one owned by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who was forced to evacuate on June 4.

Despite losing the homes and a couple dozen outbuildings, the fire did not move into the Greer valley itself.

Several other fires were burning around Arizona on Monday, including a huge blaze near the southeastern border town of Portal that has burned more than 232 square miles since it broke out May 8. It is about 50 percent contained. Another fire that broke out Sunday outside Sierra Vista near the Coronado National Memorial has forced evacuations.

In southern Colorado, a wildfire spread to about 1,000 acres and forced the evacuation of a church camp. Crews were attacking the fire near Westcliffe from the air Monday. It broke out Sunday afternoon and spread quickly in dry conditions.

In southeastern Colorado, crews are close to containing three large wildfires that broke out last week.