Full evacuation of Springerville, Eagar as high winds push Wallow Fire
2nd-largest fire in Arizona history scorches more than 389K acres
WHITE MOUNTAINS - Springerville and Eagar were ordered evacuated by the Apache County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday afternoon as a wildfire bore down on the twin towns.
High winds are the main concern for fire crews battling the 389,000-acre Wallow Fire in the White Mountains. The wildfire in Eastern Arizona was being pushed north and was zero percent contained, authorities said Wednesday afternoon.
The wildfire was making a run on its north edge Wednesday afternoon, pushing it toward the Little Colorado River.
After partial evacuation order earlier in the day, authorities ordered residents to leave the twin towns. S.R. 260 was to remain open for the evacuation and then be closed, authorities said.
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. Those evacuated who go elsewhere should register with the Wallow Fire Joint Information Center via phone at 928-333-3412.
Authorities didn't know how the community of Greer was faring. It was evacuated Tuesday. High heat and fire activity were reported in the area Wednesday.
The communities of Nutrioso and Alpine were also evacuated earlier this week, along with about 500 homes in the area of Eagar south of S.R. 260.
11 buildings have been reported destroyed, but fire officials have no further details on what kind of buildings or where they were located.
Crews are 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)."
Spot fires are igniting as much as 3 miles ahead of the main blaze.
Fire meteorologists are predicting winds to exceed 20 m.p.h. in the area, the highest expected wind-speeds in the state Wednesday.
Relative humidities were low Wednesday morning and errant sparks from the Wallow Fire have a 90 percent chance of starting a new blaze, he said.
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.
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 travelled 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, both indicators 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 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.
An Area Command Team has been called in to act as a liaison between the incident managers and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
The Apache National Forest is closed to all public entry due to the extreme fire conditions.
About 2,000 firefighters and 14 helicopters are working to stop the human-caused wildfire, which has been declared the country's number-one priority for firefighting resources. Air tankers may be called in to assist.
Fire crews bulldozed 10 miles of fire line south of Springerville and Eagar on Tuesday, and conducted controlled burns to block the wildfire's path.
Fire Information Officer Jim Wilkins said the effort to battle the Wallow Fire is the largest deployment of Arizona resources in state history.
Fire crews continue to work on two fires to the south, the Horseshoe 2 Fire near Portal and the Murphy Fire near Tumacacori. The Horseshoe 2 Fire has burnt nearly 107,000 acres and cost $31 million and the Murphy Fire has scorched more than 67,000 acres and cost $3 million.