Flames from a mammoth forest fire licked the ridges surrounding the eastern Arizona town of Eagar, forcing the evacuation of about half the 4,000 residents as surrounding towns also prepared to empty.
People started streaming out of Eagar on Tuesday as sheriff’s deputies and police officers directed traffic. Flames were spotted on a ridge on the southeastern side of nearby Springerville and columns of orange smoke rose from the hills. Ash rained from the sky, which was filled with thick smoke, and when the sun peeked through, it was blood-red.
Angie Colwell, her husband Mike and their two children were loading up their belongings as authorities ordered their Eagar neighborhood to evacuate.
“We love the mountains and we’re just afraid of what’s going to be left after the fire comes through,” the longtime resident said.
The blaze has burned 1,259km2 of ponderosa pine forest, driven by wind gusts of more than 96kph since it was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire. On Tuesday, it became the second-largest fire in Arizona history.
No serious injuries have been reported, but the fire has destroyed 10 structures so far. It has cast smoke as far east as the state of Iowa and forced some planes to divert from Albuquerque, New Mexico, 320km away.
Crews were trying to keep the flames away from Eagar and Springerville law enforcement officers patrolled the evacuated areas.
Eagar has about 4,000 residents, while Springerville has another 2,000. In all, about 7,000 people have been ordered to prepare for evacuation in recent days.
Thousands of firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, hope to keep the flames from getting into Springerville and Eagar, which sit in grassland at the edge of the forest.
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 on Tuesday night.