(Reuters) – More than 1,000 firefighters converged on this village in the Gila National Forest on Saturday as a massive wildfire that scorched eastern Arizona moved to a quarter mile from the New Mexico border.
With the winds picking up, temperatures rising and humidity low, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for this sparsely populated corner of the state, indicating grave fire danger.
“Everything is ripe for a perfect storm,” Fire Information Officer Sean Johnson told Reuters.
“There’s not enough hose and water to put out a fire in these conditions.”
Firefighters raced to set controlled fires, designed to deny the advancing wall of flames the fuel it needs, “so we can manage the fire instead of the fire managing us,” Johnson said.
The fire has forced some 10,000 people from their mountain homes and charred more than 600 square miles of mostly pine-studded forest land in Arizona.
Although the so-called Wallon Fire has not entered New Mexico yet, its smoke has hung ominously in the skies over some parts of the state for days.
On Saturday, the Albuquerque Isotopes minor league baseball club was forced to push up its game against the Nashville Sounds by three hours to get it in before an new wave of smoke rolled in from the southwest.
Weather forecasts call for wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour to buffet the already hard-hit area, with low humidity adding to the already bone-dry conditions.
“We’ve had this scenario before in this fire,” Flory told Reuters. “We’re just going to have to do our best with the conditions in front of us.”
Fire officials said progress had been made against the monster blaze that has raged in and around the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest since May 29. As of early Saturday, the fire was 6 percent contained and more was expected to be announced later in the day.
The easing of high winds that had rapidly spread the flames for several days earlier this week had allowed a fleet of water-dropping helicopters to work to douse the blaze, and a DC-10 supertanker carrying payloads of fire retardant took to the air on Thursday.
Ground crews worked around the clock with bulldozers to cut buffer zones between the fire’s edge and populated areas and to set backfires designed to draw flames away from homes.
Flory said the helicopter crews, too, were taking part in backfire operations, dropping “aerial ignition” canisters into remote, hard-to-reach stretches of forest behind fire lines.
Their job was eased as the blaze, which ranks as Arizona’s second largest on record, began burning out of the heavy timber into areas with fewer trees, fire officials said.
The latest aerial infrared images of the fire showed it has consumed nearly 409,000 acres, or almost 639 square miles. The Rodeo-Chediski fire charged nearly 469,000 acres in 2002, making it the largest in Arizona history.
The Forest Service reports that the fire has destroyed 29 homes in eastern Arizona, including 22 homes in the town of Greer, a small mountain retreat of about 200 dwellings. Another five residences were damaged and 35 nonresidential buildings have been lost.
No serious injuries have been reported.
The towns are home to roughly 8,000 permanent residents combined, accounting for most of those displaced in the White Mountains region, a popular vacation destination for Arizonans seeking to escape the summer heat.
Flory said an estimated 1,900 people already had been forced from their homes by the time Springerville and Eager were evacuated.
Springerville Mayor Eric Baca, 38, who has lived in the area his entire life, called the fire “a punch in the gut.”
“This is devastating,” he told Reuters by telephone. “This couldn’t have happened to a more pristine area. This is our lifeblood … and now a lot of it is gone.”
Photos by REUTERS/Joshua Lott