2 Arizona towns empty as wildfire approaches - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

2 Arizona towns empty as wildfire approaches

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This image provided by NASA shows the Wallow fire in eastern Arizona taken Wednesday June 8, 2011 from the MODIS instrument on board the Aqua satellite. This image provided by NASA shows the Wallow fire in eastern Arizona taken Wednesday June 8, 2011 from the MODIS instrument on board the Aqua satellite.
The Wallow fire burns towards Eagar, Ariz, north of Greer, Ariz,, Wednesday night June 8, 2011. The Wallow fire burns towards Eagar, Ariz, north of Greer, Ariz,, Wednesday night June 8, 2011.
Fire crew members sharpen their tools as they prepare for a back burn operation in Eagar, Ariz., Wednesday, June 8, 2011. Fire crew members sharpen their tools as they prepare for a back burn operation in Eagar, Ariz., Wednesday, June 8, 2011.
Transmission lines from the Springerville Generating Station stretch south toward the plume of smoke being generated by the Wallow Fire burning near Springerville, Ariz., on Wednesday, June 8, 2011. Transmission lines from the Springerville Generating Station stretch south toward the plume of smoke being generated by the Wallow Fire burning near Springerville, Ariz., on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — Fire crews worked through the night to protect several Arizona mountain communities from a growing forest fire that has forced thousands from their homes and threatens transmission lines that supply electricity as far east as Texas.

The 607-square-mile blaze, the second largest ever in Arizona, is expected to reach the power lines as early as Friday. If the lines are damaged, hundreds of thousands in parts of New Mexico and Texas could face rolling blackouts.

Meanwhile, crews were hopeful that they could slow the fire Thursday if weather predictions hold true. After days of driving winds, no high-wind warning issued.

Officials spoke guardedly late Wednesday as they faced the 12th day of the fire fight.

"Don't get complacent just because we don't have a red flag warning. Ten to 15 mph winds are good winds to drive fire, especially through grass, so we're going to have to be very careful," fire information officer Jim Whittington said.

Residents remaining in Springerville and the neighboring community of Eagar were evacuated as a spot fire popped up on the northwestern edge of the larger blaze. That caused officials to worry about the prospect of the fire hooking around a bulldozer line and a burned-out area and racing toward town.

Apache County sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement officers went house-to-house in Springerville looking for remaining residents.

At Reed's Lodge along Springerville's main street Wednesday, Daric Knight made sure no embers landed on his wood shingles. Knight's family has owned the lodge for decades.

"I've seen lots of fires, but nothing like this," he said.

About 7,000 people live in Springerville, Eagar and surrounding areas, although many had left before the sheriff ordered the full evacuation.

The blaze has blackened about 389,000 acres and destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. No serious injuries have been reported.

Firefighters planned to assess the area at daybreak, particularly around the mountain resort community of Greer, and would know then whether any additional structures had burned.

Firefighters had spent the past two days trying to create a line where they could defend the towns. They used bulldozers to scrape off vegetation and hand crews to remove other fuels. The line hasn't been breached, but officials were worried about spot fires.

Ground and aerial crews were expected to get help from a 747 super tanker due to arrive Thursday.

The fire prompted Texas-based El Paso Electric to issue warnings of possible power interruptions for its customers in southern New Mexico and West Texas.

The company uses two high voltage lines to bring electricity from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix to the two states. Losing the lines would cut off about 40 percent of the utility's supply, possibly triggering the rolling blackouts among its 372,000 customers.

The blaze, burning in mainly ponderosa pine forest, was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire. It became the second-largest in Arizona history on Tuesday.

Officials in Catron County, N.M., told residents of Luna to be prepared to leave if winds push the blaze into western New Mexico.

Whittington said Wednesday was a rough day in the Greer area when flames raced down the canyon and forced firefighters to change positions.

"It was pretty hairy. The firefighters did a good job," he said.

With a blaze as large as this being driven by unpredictable and gusty winds, putting the fire out is a gargantuan task. All fire managers can do is try to steer it away from homes and cabins by using natural terrain, burning out combustible material first and trying to put out spot fires sparked by embers blowing in front of the main fire front.

"We have a fire fight on our hands. It's going to be tough, and we're going to be here a while," Whittington said.

Another major wildfire was burning in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities. That 181-square-mile blaze has devoured 14 structures, including three summer cabins since it started May 8. Fire officials say the 116,000-acre blaze is 40 percent contained.

More than 200 miles of highways are closed due to several major wildfires burning in the state. A blaze in northern Arizona, near the mountain city of Flagstaff, forced evacuations Wednesday of about 50 homes.

Arizona's largest blaze came in 2002 when flames blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes west of the current fire. A fire in 2005 burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek and consumed 11 homes.

In Colorado, at least five wildfires threatened sparsely populated areas in the southern part of the state. Officials say a subdivision in Teller County has been evacuated.

___

Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Mark Carlson in Phoenix contributed to this report.

 

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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