- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2011

PHOENIX — Firefighters worked to steer a major wildfire away from a New Mexico town where residents fled the approaching flames, while some others evacuated because of blazes around the Southwest were allowed to return to their homes.

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. More high-wind warnings and fire weather watches were on tap for many areas through the weekend.

In western New Mexico near the Arizona border, most of the small town of Luna evacuated as a precaution Saturday afternoon as strong easterly winds pushed the Wallow fire from Arizona further into New Mexico, breaching containment lines along Highway 180.

New Mexico State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said later at night that Luna was no longer immediately threatened by flames, after crews worked through the day to move the fire around the community of 200 people. A shelter for evacuees was being set up at a high school in Reserve, N.M.

Residents of Alpine, Ariz., were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning after being forced out for more than two weeks, but Greer residents still remained evacuated by the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history.

A plane drops slurry near houses after a fire sparked on Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ariz., on June 17, 2011. (Associated Press/Arizona Daily Star)
A plane drops slurry near houses after a fire sparked on Fort ... more >

The Wallow fire has consumed about 782 square miles, a little more than 500,000 acres, and more than 4,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. The blaze this week exceeded a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings. Despite its size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins.

Containment rose to 38 percent Friday night, but more winds were predicted through the weekend with gusts of up to 60 mph possible.

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 Pine Valley Estates, Sugarite Canyon and Yankee Canyon just outside of Raton, N.M.

Containment on the nearly 28,000-acre Track Fire jumped to 45 percent. 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.

In southern Arizona, a wildfire south of Sierra Vista remained 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres, or nearly 33 square miles. Up to 50 homes already have been destroyed by the Monument fire and about 12,000 residents remain evacuated as firefighters continue slurry drops to keep the fire from pushing down a canyon and toward the city.

Fire spokesman Greg Poncin called the situation “a little bit of a nail-biter” but said crews were hopeful that containment lines would hold.

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