POSTED: 3:04 p.m. HST, Jun 5, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 3:08 p.m. HST, Jun 5, 2011
GREER, Ariz. >> Authorities ordered more eastern Arizona residents to evacuate their homes Sunday as a 225-square-mile blaze that has grown into the third-largest in state history crept toward more buildings.
The Apache County sheriff's office told an unknown number of people east of the town of Alpine along U.S. Highway 180 to get out as the forest fire crept closer.
Alpine itself has been under mandatory evacuation orders since Thursday night, along with the community of Nutrioso and several lodges and camps in the scenic high country.
Subdivisions close to the New Mexico border that were ordered emptied Sunday included Escudilla Mountain Estates, Bonita, Dog Patch, and the H-V Ranch east of Highway 180, fire information officer Eric Neitzel said.
People packed up their belongings as smoke covered the mountain vacation towns in a smoky fog, and wind blew smoke from the burning pine forest well into nearby New Mexico and Colorado.
Crews have zero containment of the fire, which has been burning for a week.
In the vacation town of Greer, which has fewer than 200 year-round residents, many people voluntarily left Saturday. Those who remained, mostly business owners, dealt with haze heavily tinged with smoke. Among them was the owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge, who was hauling out his most valuable items.
Allan Johnson spent Sunday morning getting antiques, including an 1886 table brought by covered wagon from Utah and a 1928 Oldsmobile the lodge uses for weddings, out of the fire's path. He said he was not taking reservations but was keeping the restaurant open, mainly as a meeting place.
Greer is within miles of the fire, which officials expect will grow given a windy forecast and expected dry lightning Sunday and Monday. If the blaze comes within two miles of a containment line nearby, the town will be evacuated.
"We're all waiting for the word," Johnson said. "It could be 24 hours, could be eight hours. It might not happen at all — that's what we're all rooting and praying for."
Winds died down overnight, allowing crews to burn 30 miles of containment lines between active and unburned areas that create a buffer from the most violent wind-driven runs.
"It gives a much greater chance of it having diminished fire behavior as it approaches the lines," fire information officer Peter Frenzen told The Associated Press. "And that's the concern, that you might get intense fire activity that might throw embers over the line and spot beyond our control lines."
On Saturday, Gov. Jan Brewer called the blaze "horrific" following an aerial tour and said it was "the likes of a fire of which I have never experienced from the air."
In Nutrioso, the blaze came within two miles of homes, and heavy yellowish smoke in Alpine reduced visibility to about a quarter mile. Heavy smoke drifted into northwestern New Mexico towns such as Fence Lake and Zuni Pueblo, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fetting, and it was expected to reach as far north as Gallup. The haze could reach as far as Albuquerque by Monday as winds shift to the east.
Spokesman Brad Pitassi said 1,300 firefighters were at the blaze, including some "from Oregon all the way to New York."
Since the blaze started May 29, four summer rental cabins have been destroyed, the U.S. Forest Service said. No serious injuries have been reported.
The fire is the state's third-largest, behind a 2002 blaze that blackened more than 732 square miles and one in 2005 that burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek.
The state also was contending with another major wildfire, its fifth-largest, in far southeastern Arizona that threatened a church camp and two communities. Air crews dumped water and retardant near the Methodist church camp Saturday as the 156-square-mile blaze burned around the evacuated camp in the steep Pine Canyon near the community of Paradise.
Paradise, as well as East Whitetail Canyon, was evacuated in advance and the nearby Chiricahua National Monument was closed as a precaution. Crews set backfires and kept the blaze from about a dozen occupied homes and other vacation residences Saturday.
"Paradise, even though they did protect it from the initial fire that passed by the day before yesterday, it's still not totally out of the woods," said Dave Killebrew, an information officer for the team battling the blaze.