A massive wildfire in eastern Arizona that has destroyed more than 30 homes and cabins and forced nearly 10,000 people to flee was poised to move into New Mexico late on Friday, threatening more towns and possibly endangering two major power lines that bring electricity from Arizona to West Texas.
The fire has burned 1,655km2 of forest, an increase of 295km2 from a day earlier, officials said.
“It’s getting very, very close to the New Mexico State line,” Jim Whittington, spokesman for the teams battling the fire, told reporters near Springerville on Friday night. “This is really rugged country. There is a lot of potential for the fire to grow.”
Earlier in the day, Whittington said the lighter winds on Thursday and Friday helped the 3,000 firefighters on the lines make progress, but critical fire conditions remain. High winds were expected to return with a vengeance yesterday.
“We have until then to get as much work as we can done and get to the point where we can sit back and watch the winds come,” Whittington said.
Fire crews plan to try to strengthen what lines they’ve been able to establish and continue burning out forested areas in front of the main fire to try to stop its advance. It was officially just 6 percent contained on Friday, but the actual numbers are likely higher, Whittington said.
The advances came on the fire’s north side, near the working-class towns of Springerville and Eagar on the edge of the forest. Nearly 10,000 people have been evacuated from the two towns and from several mountain communities in the forest.
On Friday, fire officials gave reporters the first look at two of the mountain communities — Alpine and Nutrioso — in nearly two weeks, driving them through the deserted resort towns and surrounding areas.
Some stands of trees in the forest were untouched while others looked like blackened matchsticks sticking up through lingering smoke. Firefighters were working in the area, using drip torches to light fires and burn out undergrowth.
Deer and elk grazed in unscorched areas, while wild turkeys walked through tall grass along the road. Three kilometers south of Alpine, whole hillsides of ponderosa were decimated.
The two Arizona-Texas power lines were still in the fire’s path, although Whittington said he was less concerned about them on Friday.
El Paso Electric has warned its 372,000 customers that they may see rolling blackouts if the lines are cut.
The fire is the second-largest in state history and could eclipse the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire in size, although only a fraction of the homes have burned.
The Chediski began as a signal fire and merged with the Rodeo, which was intentionally set by a firefighter who needed work. Together they burned 1,895km2 and destroyed 491 buildings.
The current Wallow Fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has destroyed 31 homes or cabins, including 22 in the picturesque mountain community of Greer, Whittington said. Two dozen outbuildings and a truck also were lost and five homes damaged in Greer when the fire moved in on Wednesday night.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez visited the Reserve area on Friday to discuss fire -preparations. A day ago, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer flew over burned areas in her state and met with evacuated residents in Lakeside.
“They’re very resilient people up there,” she said on Thursday.