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Wallow Fire destroys 22 homes in Greer, threatening Eagar

Eagar, Springerville evacuated Wednesday afternoon

OUTSIDE SPRINGERVILLE - Wind-driven flames from the Wallow Fire have destroyed 22 homes in the small White Mountains town of Greer, authorities said Thursday afternoon.

The fire damaged 5 others, and destroyed one vehicle. Also damaged or destroyed were 24 outbuildings. Officials were in the process of notifying property owners.

"Greer is not out of danger," Fire Information Officer Jim Whittington said earlier in the day. "There's a lot of fire out there, there's a lot of heat out there.

"But we have a lot of firefighters and engines out there."

Crews have also worked through the night to create a line of defense between the large blaze and the White Mountain communities of Springerville and Eagar. The main head of the Wallow Fire was within a mile of Eagar.

About five buildings have been destroyed in Nutrioso and Alpine, on the western edge of the fire Wednesday. 16 structures have been damaged or destroyed by the fire, other than the homes and buildings in Greer, officials said Thursday.

Wednesday, 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 Greer, which was evacuated on Tuesday.

Officials cut burn estimate

Fire officials are downgrading the amount of land burned by the Wallow Fire from 389,000 acres Wednesday to 336,000 acres Thursday.

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Fire Information Officer Kelly Wood said Thursday's count is the acreage actually burned within the fire's perimeter and does not include unburned stands or islands of vegetation that could reignite later.

Officials reassessed the acreage burned after an overnight survey with infrared equipment.

The Wallow Fire remains zero percent contained.

The Evergreen Supertanker 747 will not be deployed on the Wallow Fire, Whittington said. Instead a DC-10 is being called in to assist in fire fighting efforts along the northeastern edge of the fire, where crews are working to strengthen fire lines.

Whittington said the DC-10 will drop more retardant than the smaller air tankers typically deployed on fires.

Fire officials have been reluctant to use fixed wing aircraft such as air tankers because the hilly and steep terrain makes low flying hazardous for most aircraft aside from helicopters.

Flames have been moving into the rolling hillsides north of the main body of the fire, where air tankers can fly at low altitudes to drop retardant. Whittington said the decision to use the large DC-10 has not been finalized.

"We want to be sure that it is efficient and effective because it is not cheap," Whittington said.

More than 3,000 firefighters and more resources are being called to the $15 million blaze. 3 minor injuries have been reported.

The weather Thursday is expected to be the most moderate officials have seen since Sunday. Humidities could climb to as high as 10 percent, twice the amount seen Wednesday, said Bob Surbick, a fire meteorologist. Winds will also be slightly calmer with sustained speeds as high as 15 m.p.h. and gusts up to 25 m.p.h.. Wednesday's gusts topped out at nearly 40 m.p.h..

Unstable atmospheric conditions make the appearance of large smoke columns over the fire very likely, Surbick said.

These columns can turn into pyrocumulus clouds and generate their own weather under the right conditions, said Fire Meteorologist Alex Hoon.

These clouds can create gusting winds and microbursts that could not only hamper fire control efforts but also endanger the firefighters working on the line.

Whittington said that despite the moderate weather, the fire is expected to grow.

"We are a long ways from talking about containment," he said. "We are just trying to check the spread."

Officials will be monitoring the spread of the fire and keeping an eye on several trigger points outside the blaze's perimeter.

If flames reach these trigger points, additional communities could be evacuated, including Greens Peak, Hidden Meadow and smaller communities in Arizona as well as Luna, N.M. Fire crews are also taking measures to protect power lines and fiber optics cable in the area from the Wallow Fire.

Wallow Fire

Evacuations Wednesday

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.

Springerville Mayor Eric Baca was dismayed to hear that 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 Wednesday. "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.

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 smoke spreading as far as Illinois. Thinner plumes from the fires in Arizona and throughout the West reached to Ottawa, Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean off New England.

A thick column of smoke could be seen from south of Globe on Tuesday, more than 100 miles from the Wallow Fire.

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Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.com

The Wallow Fire nears Greer on Thursday.

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