- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2011

PHOENIX — Authorities in southern Arizona on Monday were going through neighborhoods to tally the damage from a wildfire that was pushed by fierce winds into a heavily-populated area, burning homes and businesses.

Officials say the fire came off a mountain Sunday afternoon into the outskirts of Sierra Vista and forced about 3,000 residents of 1,700 homes to flee. The evacuations brought the total number to about 10,000 people from 4,300 homes forced out by the Monument fire.

The blaze began June 12 and had destroyed 44 homes before Sunday.

Among the confirmed losses Sunday was a popular Mexican restaurant. Officials expected to get a confirmed count of the losses by midday, said Carol Capas, a spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.

“I can’t speculate right now,” Capas said Monday. “We really need to wait and see.”

Much lighter winds Monday were allowing aircraft to again attack several fires in Arizona and New Mexico. Air crews had been grounded for most of Sunday. Firefighting efforts have been dogged for days by hot, windy weather.

Meanwhile, the massive Wallow fire that has been burning in eastern Arizona for three weeks kept about 200 residents of Luna, N.M., under an evacuation order for a third day.

One of the last areas in Arizona still evacuated was reopening Monday. Residents of the picturesque resort town of Greer were being issued passes to return home. Early in the day, Greer Fire chief Mark Wade was personally escorting the owners of 22 destroyed homes in first.

“The fire chief really wants to handle them with kid gloves, handle them with dignity, and give them time to deal with it before the masses return to their homes,” fire information officer Larry Tunforss said.

Touring the Wallow fire area on Saturday, Sen. John McCain said “there was substantial evidence” that some of the fires in southern Arizona may have been started by illegal immigrants and tighter border security would have prevented them.

On Monday, his office issued a clarification, saying he was not referring to the eastern Arizona blaze.

“The facts are clear. For years, federal, state and local officials have stated that smugglers and illegal immigrants have caused fires on our southern border,” said a statement from Brooke Buchanan, McCain’s communications director.

“During the press conference on Saturday, Senator McCain was referring to fires on the Arizona/Mexico border, not the Wallow Fire.”

Federal officials have said all the fires were caused by humans, but have not determined whether activity by illegal immigrants was responsible.

The Wallow fire has consumed 811 square miles, or 519,319 acres, and more than 3,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. It 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 51 percent Sunday.

The Wallow fire, which is burning up much of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, is the largest of several wildfires burning in spots across the southwestern U.S. In other fires:

— Firefighters working to contain a massive wildfire in East Texas expected unusually hot and windy weather Monday, a day after several blazes broke out across the state and destroyed more than three dozen homes. Hundreds of people were told to evacuate after fires swept through eastern and central parts of the state.

— California firefighters are battling a wildfire that has burned nearly 8 square miles of grassland on a westward run from a Kern County oil field to a remote area of eastern San Luis Obispo County. One structure has been destroyed. The blaze was 20 percent contained early Monday and had burned 5,068 acres since it started Sunday evening.

— A fire burning nine miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., had burned about 3,000 acres by Monday and was being driven northeast into the Pecos Wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service said. The fire broke out Saturday and was not threatening any structures. Fire managers plan to use water-dropping helicopters and air tankers as long as the weather permits Monday. The wind was expected to gust up to 30 mph, far less than the 50 mph firefighters dealt with Sunday.

— A new wildfire ignited Sunday in north-central Arizona that officials said could threaten power lines running to Phoenix as well as some scattered ranches in coming days. Eric Neitzel, spokesman for the Show Low fire department, said late Sunday night that the blaze, about 40 miles northeast of Payson, Ariz., had burned about 500 acres.

— Another wildfire in Cochise County, Ariz., called Horseshoe Two was 80 percent contained after charring about 213,511 acres — nearly 334 square miles. It has destroyed 23 structures since it started May 8.

— A fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border outside of Raton, N.M., was 90 percent contained and evacuations had all been lifted. The fire apparently was started June 12 by engine exhaust from an all-terrain vehicle trespassing on railroad property.

— Authorities in southern New Mexico were looking for “persons of interest” as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso, N.M.

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