Fire Crews Gain Ground As Winds Drop In Arizona

Jun 10, 2011

A break in the windy weather helped fire crews make progress Friday against a massive wildfire whipping across eastern Arizona as thousands of people waited to return to their homes.

Fire officials said the blaze that has chewed through hundreds of square miles was 5 percent contained as of Friday afternoon. Helicopters and a large tanker were dropping fire retardant, while ground crews set back fires to burn up other materials that could allow the wildfire to spread.

Officials said the Wallow fire was likely to spread into New Mexico soon if it hasn't already crossed the border.

Jim Wilkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire official, called the blaze a monster and said it's remarkable that no one had been killed so far. Fire crews have suffered only minor injuries.

"This is the largest fire I've ever been on. This is the most tenacious fire I've ever been on," Wilkins said. "And based on the terrain, weather and behavior, it's one of the most dangerous fires our firefighters have been on."

Susan Zornek of the U.S. Forest Service said Friday that the blaze in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has destroyed 29 homes — including 22 in the picturesque mountain community of Greer — and 24 outbuildings.

Lighter winds Thursday and Friday have helped the 3,000 firefighters on the lines make good progress, fire information officer Jim Whittington said. But he added that the blaze will likely grow if forecasts hold true for stronger winds Saturday.

Fierce winds have driven the Wallow fire through more than 640 square miles of dense pine forest along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Authorities have refused to allow the nearly 10,000 people evacuated from two towns and several mountain communities to return until they're sure the residents will be safe.

At an evacuation center about 150 miles east of Phoenix, 75-year-old Millie Collet watched the fire crews' progress on a map.

"Right now I, like, look up at the map and I see that crooked line that means they're holding there. ... And so I feel my apartment is safe, that I'm going to be able to go back to it," she said.

Whittington said losing homes to wildfires has become too common.

"If you've been with those folks when they go back in, it doesn't matter if they're rich or poor, if they live in a mansion or if they live in a very small house, the pain on people's faces is exactly the same," he said late Thursday. "Our hearts go out to those folks."

Smoke from the burn operations puffed shades of black and gray in the hills above the Arizona town of Eagar as grass singed and trees lit up orange. Crews were trying to keep the flames from hooking around and making a run for Eagar and nearby Springerville, which have been evacuated.

It wasn't clear when residents would be allowed to return to Greer and the handful of other communities in the mountain forest areas of eastern Arizona. Their return would depend on weather, fire activity and the bolstering of miles of fire line.

About 2,700 mountain community residents and 7,000 people in Eagar and Springerville on the edge of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest have fled the flames.

The Wallow fire, reportedly sparked by a campfire, is the second-largest wildfire in state history. An extremely dry late winter and spring contributed to the fire conditions, drying out the forest and allowing fierce winds to carry the flames into the treetops, where they spread by miles each day.

NPR's Jeff Brady and Daniel Kraker of Arizona Public Radio contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit