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Wildfire evacuations grow near Arizona city

/ Source: staff and news service reports

Heavy air attacks with fire retardant slowed the spread of a fire near Sierra Vista, Ariz., on Friday but not before a series of evacuations and more homes were destroyed.

Gov. Jan Brewer toured the area and signed an emergency order that authorizes National Guard troops to help.

Throughout the Southwest, the wind kicked up as predicted Friday and temperatures soared as firefighters toiled to keep more homes, dry forests and stretches of high desert from being consumed by several wildfires.

Friday's evacuations in Arizona came a day after 1,700 homes were cleared out. The Monument fire grew from 9,000 acres on Thursday to more than 18,000 by Friday morning.

The wildfire is within a few miles of Sierra Vista, population 40,000, and has destroyed or damaged at least 47 homes and 10 other structures over 18,000 acres.

The soldiers from a nearby Army base were being trained to battle the fire should it enter the base.

Officials on Thursday closed off a 12-mile stretch of State Route 92 due to the conditions from the Monument fire. One county official driving along a still open section of SR 92 said he saw flames as tall as 40 feet on either side of the highway Thursday afternoon.

Police and fire officials used sirens and speakers to exhort residents in the unincorporated area of about 3,200 homes to flee,

Many people trying to flee were caught in traffic jams as roadblocks impeded their progress, reported.

Hundreds of residents in canyon areas outside the city had evacuated over the previous two days and more than 500 firefighters are attacking the blaze.

While the fast moving brush fire closes in, Debra Schofield drenches her roof prior to evacuating her Land Grant Road home Thursday, June 16, 2011 in Hereford, Ariz. Gusty winds are rugged terrain are hampering efforts by firefighters to get the upper hand on a wildfire burning in southern Arizona near Sierra Vista. Authorities say the Monument fire has charred more than 9,300 acres or 14 square miles. It's 17 percent contained. (AP Photo/Sierra Vista Herald, Mark Levy) ARIZONA DAILY STAR OUT; THE TUCSON CITIZEN OUTMark Levy / Sierra Vista Herald

Fire information officer Dale Thompson said the next few days will be tough on the fire lines because of the winds gusting up to 40 mph.

Investigators said the fire was human-caused, but they have not determined who started it. They were able to pinpoint the initial area in the Coronado National Memorial where it started June 12.

Wallow fire largest in state history
In eastern Arizona, investigators believe a single campfire was the most likely cause of what has become the largest wildfire in that state's history. The Wallow fire has consumed 773 square miles, or 495,016 acres, and more than 4,600 firefighters are trying to stop its advance.

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor Chris Knopp has said investigators questioned two people but he declined to say any more. He called them "persons of interest," not suspects.

Authorities in southern New Mexico were also looking for "persons of interest" as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso. Village Manager Debi Lee said the quick response of firefighters kept the fire from becoming much bigger, as some 300 homes had been threatened.

As for the causes of the other blazes that have raced across parts of New Mexico this week, investigators are still trying to make determinations. Still, land managers and elected officials are concerned about the prospect of more human-caused fires as summer approaches and dry conditions linger.

More than 582,000 acres have burned in New Mexico so far this year, and state forestry spokesman Dan Ware said much of that damage is the result of human-caused fires.

"It's everyday activities — welding, grinding, driving, debris burning," he said. "People know it's dry, but I think people kind of have this built-in sense of invulnerability and they think 'It's not going to happen to me. I'm being careful.'"

"This is one of those years where the oh-it-can't-happen-to-me mentality doesn't cut it," he said.

The costs are too high for people to be careless or disregard restrictions, said Neil Segotta, the mayor of Raton, N.M. He has watched for the past week as hundreds of firefighters have battled a wildfire burning in the mountains above his community.

The fire has burned more than 27,000 acres along the New Mexico-Colorado border, devastating the community's watershed, destroying eight homes and six other structures and forcing the evacuation of several hundred people. Most residents have been allowed to return home with the exception of those near the eastern flank and some to the northwest of Raton.

Firefighters were focused Friday on keeping the flames from pushing farther into Colorado. In that state, more than 7,100 acres have burned since the fire started Sunday on the west side of Interstate 25.

Crews have built lines to keep the flames in check on the northern end. They worked Friday to bolster those lines and continued mop-up operations elsewhere on the fire's perimeter.

Fingers crossed
Along the New Mexico-Arizona border, thousands of firefighters continued to battle the Wallow fire. Containment remained at 33 percent Friday, but more winds were predicted through the weekend, with gusts of 50 mph possible.

A pre-evacuation notice for an area in southeast Eagar, Ariz., remained in effect because of high winds and possible spot fires.

"We're kind of keeping our fingers crossed for the next three days because of the predictions," fire information officer Richard Hadley said.

Fire managers were concerned about the fire burning in the Blue Range area south of Alpine, Ariz. — the least secure part of firefighters' lines and closest to the nearest town still threatened, Luna, N.M., where about 200 people live.

About 2,400 people remained evacuated from Alpine and Greer, Ariz., and smaller vacation enclaves after about 300 were allowed to return to Nutrioso, Ariz., on Wednesday. Last Sunday, all 7,000 people evacuated from Eagar and neighboring Springerville were allowed to go home.

The blaze became the largest in Arizona history Wednesday, exceeding a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles, or 469,000 acres, and destroyed 491 buildings. Though larger in size, the latest fire has destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins.

Friday was proving to be another busy day for firefighting crews across the West. Fires were burning near Yakima, Wash., west of St. George, Utah, and in southern Colorado.

With summer rains still weeks away, forecasters said crews would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that dogging them this week. More red-flag warnings and fire weather watches were on tap for many areas through the weekend.

The outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, calls for fire potential to be above normal in some parts of the West through September.