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Wallow Fire threatens White Mountain towns

Eagar, Springerville evacuated Wednesday afternoon

SPRINGERVILLE/EAGAR - Flames from the Wallow Fire churned through the small town of Greer on Wednesday afternoon, but fire officials were unable to say what damage was caused by the wind-fueled inferno.

High winds pushed flames down hillsides and into canyons on the northwestern flank of the Wallow Fire, forcing fire crews to temporarily retreat from efforts in the area surrounding the hamlet in the White Mountains, which was evacuated on Tuesday.

Law enforcement officials ordered the evacuation of both Eagar and Springerville on Wednesday afternoon. Both communities spent the majority of the day shrouded in smoke and under a constant rain of ash from the human-caused blaze. After partial evacuation order earlier in the day, authorities ordered residents to leave the twin towns.

The fire was growing from its 389,000 acre mark throughout the day, and was zero percent contained, authorities said.

Battling the blaze are 2,000 firefighters, 2 air tankers and 14 helicopters.

Kelly Baca, 57, spent a few moments hosing down his property before abandoning his home on the western side of Eagar Wednesday. Baca, who has lived in St. John's and Eagar for his entire life, said he took care to pack only what was important - food, water, photos and documents - "stuff you can't replace."

Baca is leaving behind a yellow 1950's pickup and a 1957 Chevy that he worried may not survive the fire if it moves into Eagar.

"If those trees catch fire then I know by God that I am in trouble," he said.

'It's already ruined - the hunting, the fishing - everything'

But for many like Baca, who enjoy the outdoor recreation offered by a life in the White Mountains, it is too late.

"It's already ruined - the hunting, the fishing - everything," he said.

Not all homeowners are fleeing the oncoming flames. Dan Whelan, a commander in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, is staying at his second home in hopes of protecting it from both flames and potential looters.

Whelan's two-story home sits in an area clear of large trees and surrounded by grass. The immediate area surrounding his home is gravel, and the only vegetation in the carefully sculpted yard is a few small trees and shrubs.

"I'd like to say I feel comfortable with the place mowed down as it is," he said. "With that being said, I have never seen a forest fire."

It was not all bad news for fire officials Wednesday. Crews made a small amount of progress in a pocket on the northeastern flank of the fire to the point where they were diverted to reinforce efforts to protect buildings in Alpine.

If the fire line in that pocket holds through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, fire officials will be able to claim their first victory - albeit a small one - on the largest fire in the nation.

Wind driving spot fires ahead of blaze

Crews spent the day strengthening lines between the main body of the blaze and the communities of Greer, Springerville, Eagar, Nutrioso and Alpine while keeping tabs on "dozens" of smaller spot fires caused by embers blown over fire lines, said Fire Information Officer Jim Whittington.

"We are going to be challenged by winds," Whittington said. "We are going to be challenged by spots (fires)."

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High winds have driven embers well beyond the main body of the Wallow Fire, thwarting efforts of fire crews to rein in the blaze by creating dozens of smaller conflagrations beyond control lines. These spot fires, igniting as much as 3 miles ahead of the main blaze,  are what have kept fire officials from claiming even the smallest percentage of containment since the fire began on May 29.

Fire officials may be able to say the fire is partly contained on Thursday, if only by a few percentage points, said Fire Information Officer Suzanne Flory.

Flory said the Tucson-based Evergreen 747 Supertanker is being called in to assist in firefighting efforts Thursday. The large tanker has been used on blazes as far away as Israel.

Two air tankers and 14 helicopters were fighting the Wallow Fire on Wednesday. Before then, only helicopters had been used in firefighting efforts there.

Flory said another bit of good news is the relative humidity in the region around the Wallow Fire may climb enough Wednesday night that the Red Flag Warning for the area may be lifted Thursday.

But the high winds in the area will continue, Flory said, which means fire spread is still very possible.

Crews set fires on the northern edge of the blaze Tuesday night in an effort to starve flames of fuel before they could reach Eagar, but Whittington said efforts were halted due to weather conditions.

An estimated 100 engines are working to protect buildings in Eagar, Nutrioso, Alpine, Springerville and Greer, he said.

Bulldozers and fire crews will work throughout Wednesday to build a line of protection between the Wallow Fire and Greer, Springerville and Eagar. The plan is to then set fires between that line and the main body of the fire, Whittington said.

"I don't think we can afford to leave any unburned area out here," he said.

'You couldn't take a more beautiful part of the country and let it burn'

Springerville Mayor Eric Baca was dismayed to hear that these burnout operations would be conducted, saying that the communities in the area rely on the land for income from tourism, hunting and fishing.

"I was born and raised in this area," Baca said. "It's heavy wilderness. You couldn't take a more beautiful part of the country and let it burn.

"That's our economic impact. That's our lifeblood."

Baca said many Springerville residents left their homes Tuesday after evacuations were ordered for Eagar residents living south of Route 260. Some are now staying in a shelter, others have traveled to the Phoenix area or the nearby communities of Pinetop, Lakeside and Show Low to stay with family and friends.

Many homes in both Springerville and Eagar could be seen with white cloths hanging from front doorknobs or yellow police tape tied to mailboxes, indicating that residents have evacuated those homes.

Baca himself is planning to take his 11-year-old son and five-year-old daughter to Phoenix. He said his children have not been allowed to go outside to play because of the intense smoke and ash in the air. It is tough for them because school was let out for the summer a week ago.

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Smoke from the wildfire has been reported as far away as Albuquerque, N.M., a four-hour drive from Eagar, and satellite photos show the plume spreading as far as Iowa. A column of smoke could be seen from south of Globe on Tuesday, more than 100 miles from the Wallow Fire.

Three Type 1 Incident Management Teams have been tasked to fight the Wallow Fire, which started on May 29 and has cost an estimated $11.1 million so far, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

About 2,000 firefighters are working to stop the human-caused wildfire, which has been declared the country's number-one priority for firefighting resources. No injuries have been reported.

Fire Information Officer Jim Wilkins said the effort to battle the Wallow Fire is the largest deployment of Arizona resources in state history.

The Apache National Forest is closed to all public entry due to the extreme fire conditions.

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Click image to enlarge

Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.com

Kelly Baca hoses down his front yard in Springerville before evacuating on Wednesday.

Red Cross shelter

A shelter for evacuees was set up by the American Red Cross at American Red Cross shelter at Blue Ridge High School, 1200 W. White Mountain Blvd., in Pinetop-Lakeside. Evacuees who go elsewhere should register with the Wallow Fire Joint Information Center via phone at 928-333-3412.

Road closures

Road closures because of the Wallow Fire include:

  • U.S. 60 from Springerville to the New Mexico state line (mileposts 384-401)
  • State Route 260 east of the Hawley Lake turnoff and Eagar, and between between mileposts 372-398
  • Highway 191 from Alpine on the north to the Clifton on the south (mileposts 176-253)
  • S.R. 261 from seven miles south of S.R. 260 to Crescent Lake (mileposts 394-405)
  • S.R. 273 between Sunrise Park and Big Lake (mileposts 390-397)
  • U.S. 180 between S.R. 260 near Eagar and the New Mexico state line (mileposts 403-433)
  • S.R. 373 between Greer and Eagar