PHOENIX – A forest fire that has scorched over 480 square miles in eastern Arizona flared out of control for a 10th day on Tuesday and advanced on two mountain towns near New Mexico, forcing hundreds more people from their homes.
The latest evacuations raised the number of residents displaced by the wildfire, the second-largest on record in Arizona, to as many as 3,500 in communities flanking the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, state and local officials said.
Smoke from the conflagration continued to drift across several states as far east as Iowa, officials said.
More than 2,100 firefighters faced another tough day of fierce winds that fanned the massive blaze northward and closer to the White Mountains communities of Eager and Springerville, home to an estimated 7,500 residents combined.
Fire officials put both on alert for possible evacuation on Monday, along with the small New Mexico town of Luna.
Some 500 residents in Eager were evacuated on Tuesday afternoon, said Sergeant Richard Guinn, a spokesman for the Apache County Sheriff's Office.
"At this point, we need people to get out so we're sure everyone will be safe," he told Reuters. "Now we've reached that trigger point."
The popular mountain retreat of Greer, home to roughly 200 permanent residents, was ordered evacuated on Monday as flames crept to within 5 miles of town. But the community appeared on Tuesday to be out of immediate danger as the leading edge of the fire veered north.
Weather forecasts called for sustained winds of up to 18 miles per hour, with gusts even higher in the region, about 250 miles northeast of Phoenix.
At midday Tuesday, fire officials said the so-called Wallow Fire had charred more than 311,000 acres, or nearly 487 square miles, of tinder-dry ponderosa pine forests since May 29.
No one has been hurt, and reported property losses have been limited to 10 buildings, including at least four cabins, so far. But Governor Jan Brewer said that as many as 3,000 people had been forced from their homes, not counting the latest evacuees in Eager. On Monday she declared a state of emergency for two counties.
The state's largest wild lands blaze on record, the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona, blackened almost 469,000 acres in 2002 before it was snuffed out.
As of Tuesday, containment of the Wallow Fire remained at zero. Brewer said fire officials were hoping to gain some control over the blaze by Friday, though her spokesman, Matt Benson, said firefighting progress hinged on the weather.
Several hundred residents from the eastern Arizona towns of Alpine and Nutrioso were ordered from their homes last Thursday, and four smaller housing developments were evacuated on Sunday. Those evacuations were still in effect on Tuesday.
"It's very scary up here," said Bill Farbstein, who works at the Springerville-Eager Chamber of Commerce and fled his home in Nutrioso with his wife on Thursday. "Everyone is very concerned. It's ruining the best part of the forest right now." Farbstein said he is unsure whether there will be anything left when he returns home.
Nearly 900 firefighters continued to work on Tuesday to gain greater control over a separate large wildfire burning in the southeastern part of the state.
Officials said the Horseshoe 2 Fire had consumed more than 104,000 acres and prompted the evacuation of two small communities there. That fire was listed as 55 percent contained.
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