Thousands ordered to evacuate as mammoth forest fire encroaches on Arizona town

Thousands ordered to evacuate as mammoth forest fire encroaches on Arizona town

07 June 2011

published by www.washingtonpost.com


USA — 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.

New mapping showed that some firebreaks have held but the wildfire was still considered zero percent contained Tuesday night.

Dozens of firefighters worked Tuesday alongside a stretch of U.S. Highway 191 about two miles outside of Springerville, burning combustible material such as vegetation along one side of the road in an effort to keep the approaching fire from jumping across and heading into town.

Puffs of smoke billowed from underneath juniper and pinyon trees as flames licked at the trees.

Jeff Brink, a member of an Idaho-based Bureau of Land Management fire crew, had spent the better part of Tuesday doing burnouts and making sure the flames stayed on one side of the highway while warily watching the weather.

“Obviously, with these winds, when we’re burning out the wind can shift,” Brink said.

The American Red Cross has an evacuation center at the high school about 15 miles west in Lakeside, Ariz., that can handle several thousand people, spokesman Mark Weldon said. The center was opened at Blue Ridge high after last week’s evacuation of about 2,700 people from nearly mountain communities, but only about 50 were there before the new evacuations Tuesday. Extra cots, blankets and comfort kits were rushed to the school early Tuesday as the threat heightened.

Smoke from the fires was worst in the towns just north of the blaze, including Eagar and Springerville. But haze was being carried by a ridge of high pressure as far as central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver. The smoke was also visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Colorado health officials canceled a smoke health advisory Tuesday as smoke cleared from the southern half of the state. Two airliners headed to Albuquerque were diverted Monday night because of smoke and high winds.

The state’s largest blaze came in 2002 when flames blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes. A fire in 2005 burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek and consumed 11 homes.

Another major wildfire was burning in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities. The 166-square-mile blaze has devoured three summer cabins and four outbuildings since it started May 8.

The Coronado National Forest will close at noon Thursday because of danger from the blaze, fire officials said.
 


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