USA — The massive Wallow Fire that has ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in eastern Arizona continued to bear down on Eagar and Springerville, forcing the evacuation of 6,500 residents Wednesday.
There were growing fears that the epic blaze, which has already charred about 400,000 acres of ponderosa forest, would devastate the idyllic hamlet of Greer as flames jumped containment lines and forced firefighting teams, battling to save homes and cabins, to temporarily retreat.
The complete evacuations of the two biggest towns in the path of the fire were triggered when embers leaped the defensive line that firefighters were attempting to establish on the northwestern flank of the blaze in a canyon south of Greer, said Kelly Wood, an information officer with the Pinetop Fire Department.
Fire conditions had grown so bad around Greer that officials pulled firefighters out of the scenic town for their own safety for several hours, then after evaluating the movement of the fire, moved them back in.
Jim Whittington, spokesman at the Southwest Incident Command Center, said firefighters were able to burn off a line along the east side of Greer, where the flames were coming from. He would not speculate on whether any homes had been lost to the fire.
The overnight plan was to build containment lines south of Springerville and Eagar, and continue cutting lines along the northwest side of the blaze near Greer.
Bob Pollock was one of the last residents to leave Greer on Wednesday.
“I was hopeful until about 12:30 this afternoon,” said Pollock, who owns a home in Greer and had signed a waiver to stay despite evacuation orders. “By then, it (the smoke) had come much closer and had turned an ominous color of orange and black.”
Pollock said that, as he was heading out of town, looking east, “I could see flames on the eastern ridge (of Greer).”
No one could say with any certainty what had become of the beloved mountain hamlet, a favorite summer respite for many desert dwellers.
John Helmich, spokesman for the Cibola National Forest, confirmed that firefighters were “backed out” of Greer for their own safety.
Wednesday’s evacuations marked the fourth time law-enforcement officials have ordered White Mountain residents to leave their homes in the path of the blaze, which has scorched more than 400,000 acres in the 11 days since it was first spotted near Bear Wallow Wilderness area. It looks set to become the state’s biggest recorded wildfire.
Residents of Nutrioso, Alpine, Greer and Hannagan Meadow already have been told to leave.
The blaze showed few signs that it was beginning to come under control, with zero percent of the wildfire contained, according to estimates late Wednesday.
As the fire continued its march toward Eagar and Springerville, wildland-fire crews bulldozed trees and started controlled burns to create a natural break to rob the blaze of tinder: dry scrub and lumber fueling its relentless, wind-driven advance.
As the heavy winds that have fanned the fire began to die down Tuesday night, fire crews cut a containment line that would stretch from Greer to Eagar, using the Little Colorado River as a natural break for the blaze.
Crews had not had time to make the containment lines as strong as they wanted when the flames hit the canyon formed by the Little Colorado River near Greer, fire officials said.
As the flames moved up the canyon, officials made the decision late Wednesday afternoon to evacuate all of Springerville and Eagar.
“If the fire continues to establish itself in fuels in that area, it’ll throw bigger embers that’ll last longer,” said Peter Frenzen, a fire-information officer. “They’re looking at the worst-case-scenario, where they’re moving through neighborhoods extinguishing spot fires.”
If those spot fires happen to be in neighborhoods in Eagar and Springerville, firefighters don’t want to have to be dodging homeowners, Frenzen added.
Sheriff’s deputies began going door to door, warning residents that if they remained behind, they were on their own.
“There may be no opportunity for first responders to return and check on you,” a sheriff’s flier read. “Consider this notice your final warning to leave.”
Although the blaze forced the evacuations of Nutrioso and Alpine earlier, the work of local groups and the U.S. Forest Service in the past decade have helped burn out many of the dead trees that could have made the blaze even worse in Alpine.
“That’s probably why the town’s still there,” and Eric Neitzel, spokesman for the Show Low Fire Department.
Structures in other areas, including Hannagan Meadow, were saved by firefighters who were able to use the defensible space around buildings to spare them.
Of the 11 structures destroyed so far in the blaze, a handful were described as vacation-type cabins near Beaver Creek.
Susan VanFelker, who works at Beaver Creek Guest Ranch, said five guest cabins had burned.
The remaining structures are too far inside the burned area to get an accurate read on what types of buildings were involved, fire officials said.
Instead of widespread destruction, Neitzel said, the blaze left more of a checkerboard pattern as it made its way north, a sign that efforts to thin forests and remove dead fuels work.
“It doesn’t look like nuclear winter,” he said.
Springerville Town Manager Steve West said some residents who had chosen to stay were required to remain on their property. If they leave their property, West said, they will be escorted from the town.
“Most people are smart enough to get out of here,” West said.
Springerville Vice Mayor Dan Muth said essential town personnel were staying behind to provide “vital services.”
“When you live this close to Mother Nature, sometimes you need to bend to its will,” Muth said.
Eagar Town Manager Bill Greenwood said that the fire had reached the bulldozer line that firefighters created next to Arizona 260 on Wednesday but that the blaze had not jumped the line.
Greenwood said their biggest fear is fires in town. Firefighters were patrolling it, looking for outbreaks, but none had been reported in the heart of town by Wednesday evening.
Greenwood said officials are “pretty optimistic” about protecting homes and other structures because a lot of potential fuel was cleared out.