Wallow Fire 5 percent contained, destroys 22 homes in Greer
Springerville, Eagar fire lines completed
OUTSIDE SPRINGERVILLE - The Wallow Fire is now 5 percent contained, according to fire officials who have been fighting the large blaze in the White Mountains.
Crews were able to complete a fire line crucial to protecting the western side of Eager and Springerville on Thursday after a shift in wind patterns blew the fire back on itself, said Fire Information Officer Kelly Wood.
Work was also done on fire lines that could keep flames from reaching Sunrise Ski Resort and help protect Greer, where more than 20 homes have already been destroyed.
Wind-driven flames from the Wallow Fire have burned 22 homes on the eastern side of Greer, authorities said Thursday afternoon. The fire damaged 5 others, and destroyed one vehicle. Also damaged or destroyed were 24 outbuildings.
In addition to the fire line on the eastern and northeastern portions of the blaze, crews also strengthened defenses around Nutrioso, Wood said.
Five other homes were destroyed in Nutrioso and Alpine on Wednesday, according to fire officials.
More than 5,000 structures are still at risk of burning.
Dan Whelan, who drove up to Eagar from Phoenix on Tuesday to protect his second home, said fire crews have been moving up and down State Route 260 near his property.
Whelan opted not to leave his home Wednesday when police served him an evacuation notice.
He said the morning was relatively calm and winds did not begin to pick up until the afternoon, as did air traffic when helicopters began siphoning water from nearby lakes to drop on the fire south of his house.
In addition to 16 helicopters, a DC-10 flying out of Phoenix was also tasked to the Wallow Fire. The large tanker is capable of dropping nearly 13,000 gallons of retardant in a swath that is 100 feet wide and one mile long. Alternatively it can make eight separate drops, each roughly the equivalent of a single drop from a traditional air tanker.
The Evergreen Supertanker 747 will not be deployed on the Wallow Fire, said Fire Information Officer Jim Whittington.
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.
In addition to the aircraft, nearly 200 engines, 61 water tenders and 18 bulldozers are fighting the fire on the ground. A total of more than 3,000 fire personnel are assigned to the to the $15 million blaze, with more on the way. 3 minor injuries have been reported.
A shift in wind patterns Thursday afternoon blew the fire back onto itself, driving it into areas that had already burned. This gave fire crews the opportunity to aggressively set fires of their own and further strengthen lines.
Wood said officials anticipate lighter winds Friday, but winds are expected to pick up again on Saturday.
Crews will have to work hard Friday to build more fire lines, said Fire Information Officer Jim Wilkins.
"Tomorrow's push is going to be to increase that percentage," Wilkins said, referring to the 5 percent containment.
"When that wind comes (on Saturday), it's going to test our lines because that fire is going to push on them," he said.
Winds and low humidities have been the driving force behind the fire's growth over the past few days.
386,000 acres burned
Fire officials estimate that 386,690 acres have been burned by the wildfire.
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.
Unstable atmospheric conditions make the appearance of large smoke columns over the fire very likely, said Bob Surbick, a fire meteorologist..
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.
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.