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Associated Press, Published June 09 2011

Massive Arizona wildfire nears resort town

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — Fire crews working feverishly overnight managed to protect most of a mountain resort town threatened by a massive wildfire in eastern Arizona, authorities said Thursday.

Fire information officer Suzanne Flory said overnight operations went well, particularly in the community of Greer, where the blaze had made a significant run on Wednesday.

“Firefighters had a good stand and were able to protect the main part of town, but structures were lost. We don't know how many at this point,” Flory said.

Federal officials released an updated size of the blaze based on better mapping. The fire has scorched 525 square miles, mostly in ponderosa pine forest, down from 607 square miles reported Wednesday.

It remained the second-largest fire in Arizona's history.

Several mountain communities have emptied in advance of the fire, and a utility that supplies power to customers in southern New Mexico and west Texas issued warnings of possible power interruptions. Losing the lines would cut off about 40 percent of the utility's supply, possibly triggering the rolling blackouts among its 372,000 customers.

In nearby 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.

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 has destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. 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.

Ground and aerial crews were expected to get help from a 747 super tanker due to arrive Thursday.

The blaze was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire.

Fire information officer Jim Whittington said Wednesday was a rough day in the Greer area when flames raced down the canyon and forced firefighters to change positions.

“It was pretty hairy. The firefighters did a good job,” he said.

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.

“We have a fire fight on our hands. It's going to be tough, and we're going to be here a while,” Whittington said.

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.

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.

In Colorado, at least five wildfires threatened sparsely populated areas in the southern part of the state. Officials say a subdivision in Teller County has been evacuated.


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