PHOENIX (AP) — Extremely high winds are expected to challenge firefighters trying to protect homes threatened by a pair of fires in southern and eastern Arizona on Sunday.
The small New Mexico town of Luna is in the path of the massive Wallow Fire burning in eastern Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Fire breached a containment line along Highway 180 on Saturday and about 200 residents were ordered to evacuate and remained out of their homes Sunday.
The evacuation order came on the same day that some other residents displaced by the fire that began May 29 were allowed to return home.
The threat to Luna lessened late Saturday but was expected to return Sunday afternoon as wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph were expected to drive the flames.
Only about half the town's residents actually left, and the rest have been told to stay off the roads so they don't get in the way of fire crews, Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher said Sunday. Few people went to a Red Cross shelter set up in Reserve, N.M.
"If the fire comes back around or things change where they have to get out, we still have an egress point, so we will still escort them out of town," Fletcher said. "We're expected high winds this afternoon — we're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."
The blaze has consumed nearly 800 square miles, a little more than 511,000 acres, and more than 3,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. The blaze is larger than a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings that had been the largest in state history. Despite its size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins. Containment rose to 44 percent Sunday.
In southern Arizona, a wildfire south of Sierra Vista remained 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres, or nearly 33 square miles. About 44 home already have been destroyed by the Monument fire and about 2,600 homes were evacuated.
Fire information officer Bill Paxton said high winds Sunday morning grounded tankers that have been dropping slurry on the fire. Winds were blowing steadily at about 30 mph with gusts on the ridges of about 50 mph. About 1,000 firefighters were on the lines, and hundreds of state and local police and firefighters were helping in the area.
With summer rains still weeks away, forecasters said fire crews across the region would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that has dogged them for days.
Residents of Alpine, Ariz., were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning after being forced out by the Wallow Fire for more than two weeks, but residents of the resort town of Greer still remained evacuated.
U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who owns a home in Greer, toured the fire area Saturday along with Sen. John McCain and Arizona congressmen Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar.
"Seeing a terrible fire like this is always a wakeup call," Flake, a Republican who represents Arizona's 6th district, said in a statement. "Our forest health policies need an overhaul. ... In the short term, we need to address regulations that hamper timber salvage in the burnt areas. In the long term, we need to enter into public-private partnerships in order to improve the health of these forests by thinning them."
Meanwhile, the remaining evacuations from a fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border were lifted Saturday morning for residents of communities outside of Raton, N.M.
Containment on the nearly 28,000-acre Track Fire jumped to 80 percent Sunday morning and fire officials said existing fire lines were holding despite strong winds in the area.
Investigators from New Mexico State Forestry and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway said Saturday that fire apparently was started June 12 by engine exhaust from an all-terrain vehicle.
They said the rider was trespassing onto land owned by BNSF railway through access from nearby private property. The Colfax County Sheriff's Department was seeking information on the person or persons riding or operating ATVs near the origin of the fire.
Another wildfire in Cochise County, Ariz., called the Horseshoe Two was 75 percent contained after charring about 210,000 acres — nearly 330 square miles.
A fire burning 9 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., had burned about 900 acres by Sunday morning and was being driven northeast into the Pecos Wilderness, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Alberta Maez said. The fire broke out Saturday and was not threatening any structures, but hikers and residents In the Santa Fe Ski Basin, Aspen Basin, Aspen Vista, and Big Tesuque were told to be ready to leave is necessary.
U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell visited the Arizona fire operations Saturday to assess the progress.
All of the Arizona wildfires are believed to be human caused. Investigators believe a campfire was the most likely cause of the Wallow fire.
Authorities in southern New Mexico were also looking for "persons of interest" as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso.
Also around the West, fires still were burning near Yakima, Wash., and in southern Colorado. A wildfire near St. George, Utah, was fully contained after scorching more than 1,000 acres of federal and stare rangelands.
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