USA — Authorities have ordered issued a mandatory evacuation order for two communities in southeastern Arizona near the Horseshoe Two wildfire.
A raging wildfire threatened the small town of Alpine and and Nutrioso near the New Mexico line Thursday, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
The Wallow Fire has blackened over 60,000 acres in five days. Officials called for a mandatory evacuation at 5 p.m., requiring residents to leave by 8 p.m.
Summer resident Teresa Tinter said memories of the massive 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire has lingered in everyone’s minds the past few days. Sheriff’s officials already have started making comparisons to that historic blaze, which burned over 460,000 acres.
“I’m just hoping for the best. I have a lot of faith in the firefighters,” said Tinter, who was in the process of evacuating. “Right now, we’re just concerned for everyone’s safety.”
Jonetta Trued, spokeswoman for the Eastern Arizona Incident management team, said that a very active fire season was predicted six months ago and “it’s becoming all too true.”
Firefighters will continue to provide protection to structures in the Alpine area and will construct containment lines using roads and fuel breaks, authorities said.
More than 600 people, six helicopters, four air tankers and 14 engines were fighting the blaze. All the firefighters were working to protect Alpine from the flames late Thursday as embers from the fire began blowing into the town.
“Boots on the ground make a huge difference in protecting structures,” Trued said.
“You have to decide what’s important to you,” resident Monty Riggs said as fire officials knocked on his door, telling him to leave.
An evacuation was hinted at earlier in the day, so Riggs had taken his horses and equipment out of the town before departure became mandatory.
Tinter, who has lived in Alpine during the summer off and on for 18 years, had never experienced an evacuation before.
She was waiting for a meeting at the Alpine Community Center when she heard of the mandatory evacuation.
She immediately went home to begin packing her belongings and her cat to leave for her home in Phoenix.
Some residents did attend the community meeting prior to evacuation and received information from the Apache County Sheriff’s Office about how to evacuate and where to go.
Residents were instructed to go to Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop-Lakeside or to call and register with the Wallow Fire Joint Information Center if they went elsewhere. About four hours after evacuation was ordered in Alpine, the U.S. Forest Service began to evacuate Nutrioso.
The fire had burned only 6,700 acres by Wednesday but expanded rapidly Thursday because of low humidity, high winds and dry conditions.
“The weather’s up against them (firefighters) and it’s running real fast,” said William Bishop, a spokesman for the Eastern Arizona Incident Management Team.
Fire officials said the Wallow Fire, which primarily is burning in Apache County, is “not contained at all.”
On Thursday, the winds shifted to the northeast, putting the 600 to 1,000 people who live in the Alpine area in jeopardy.
The rugged, steep terrain has made it “extremely difficult” to fight the blaze, Bishop said.
In addition, the fire has developed a “thermal column,” a cloud of hot air and smoke stretching 30,000 feet high.
Fire officials said the column can create its own weather, fueling the flames.
The column also can launch embers far outside the fire, starting new blazes.
Such embers began causing spot fires in Alpine while residents were evacuating.
“You couldn’t hardly see 100 feet in front of you,” Springerville Town Manager Steve West said.
West, as well as his counterpart in Eagar, Bill Greenwood, said they are concerned about the smoke affecting people with respiratory problems. Thus far, an increase in incidents has not been reported.
The change in wind patterns Thursday gave both towns a small respite from the smoke.
“Some people will leave for the day just to get away from the smoke,” Greenwood said. “The way the smoke billows, it looks like it’s a mile away.”
The National Weather Service expects high winds and dry conditions today for much of northern and eastern Arizona, including the region where the Wallow Fire is burning.
Fire officials said there was significant potential for large fire growth due to warmer and drier conditions.
Firefighters are also combating three other fires across the state.
Coconino National Forest firefighting crews responded to another fire at approximately noon Thursday two miles south of Interstate 40 and 12 miles west of Flagstaff. The more than 120-acre Engineer Fire has moved to within a mile of Interstate 40, and two helicopters, two air tankers, nine engines and more than 100 personnel were dispatched to deal with the blaze.
If the fire gets to within a half mile of the Interstate, officials said the highway will be shut down.
Officials said no evacuations have been ordered and no structures are being threatened.
The cause of the fire is still unknown.
Horseshoe Two Fire
The Horseshoe Two Fire has burned for about three weeks and has consumed about 86,140 acres in southeast Arizona near Portal.
Coronado National Forest officials say more than 930 people have fought the fire, which is 50 percent contained. Officials believe the fire will be contained in two or three weeks. The fire is human caused.
A northwest portion of the fire broke free of containment Wednesday, but it was controlled after nearly 500 more acres burned.
Winds and dry condition still exist, but Mary Rasmussen, spokeswoman for the Southwest Arizona Incident Management Team, said the winds are “working with us,” because they are blowing into the burned area.
The Murphy Fire, which began Monday afternoon in southern Arizona, is burning about 4 miles west of Tubac and has had grown to almost 14,100 acres, officials said. It also is human caused.
The fire is burning in an area of steep terrain, making it difficult for firefighters to establish a fire line, officials said.
The fire is currently 15 percent contained and, officials said they expect to fully contain the fire by next week.
Fire experts say strategic, controlled burns can forestall conflagrations, so fire managers on the North Kaibab Ranger District on Wednesday were preparing to conduct a prescribed burn of about 270 acres, 10 miles west of Highway 67 near the Rainbow Rim Trail, which is on the north side of the Grand Canyon and southwest of Jacob Lake.
Punky Moore, spokeswoman for the Kaibab National Forest, said the burn would begin Thursday or Friday and last one or two days.
“That’s a popular hiking and biking area and people will see smoke,” Moore said. “We’ll have signs up and people in the area.”