- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2011

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Crews used controlled backfires early Sunday to blunt the advance of a major wildfire near mountain communities in eastern Arizona, a blaze the state’s governor called “absolutely frightening.” The fire already has burned through 225 square miles of forest and brush.

Fire officials still have zero containment of the Wallow Fire near the New Mexico-Arizona state line, which has forced an unknown number of people to evacuate from several small towns.

The 144,000-acre fire, the third-largest in state history, has sent smoke well into New Mexico and parts of southern Colorado.

“It was unbelievable — the expansion of the smoke,” Gov. Jan Brewer said Saturday after an aerial tour of the blaze and a briefing from fire team’s commander in Springerville.

“It was horrific and of the likes of a fire of which I have never experienced from the air,” she told reporters. “We hope that we get more encouraging news in the morning.”

Brad Pitassi, spokesman for the area fire management team, said fire teams around the evacuated town of Alpine, along Highways 191 and 180, were using the backfires to rob the advancing blaze of fuel.

“It’s like fighting fire with fire,” he told the Associated Press.

Fire managers said in a statement early Sunday that 160 firefighters were working through the night in the operation.

Mr. Pitassi said 1,300 firefighters are on the scene, including some from other states.

“We’re tapping into resources across the nation, from Oregon all the way to New York,” he said.

Crews have struggled to protect property, and just four summer rental cabins have burned since it started May 29, the U.S. Forest Service said. There have been no serious injuries.

The fire reached Alpine’s outskirts Saturday and was about two miles away from homes in Nutrioso, said Bob Dyson, another spokesman.

The yellowish smoke in Alpine was so heavy that it reduced visibility to about a quarter mile.

Many residents of the nearby mountain vacation town of Greer voluntarily evacuated on Saturday, Mr. Pitassi said. The town has fewer than 200 permanent residents but attracts many vacationers.

In terms of size, the Wallow Fire ranks behind Arizona’s 469,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 and the 248,000-acre Cave Creek complex fire in 2005.

Meanwhile, crews were protecting a church camp and two communities from the Horseshoe Two fire, which has burned 156 square miles in far southeastern Arizona. It’s the fifth-largest fire in state history.

The blazed expanded Saturday to 100,200 acres as it burned around the evacuated United Methodist Church camp in the steep Pine Canyon near the community of Paradise.

Helicopters dumped water and retardant on a hotspot near the camp.

“Crews were successful in saving the camp,” fire officials said in a statement Saturday night.

Fire teams also were focusing on protecting the evacuated communities of Paradise and East Whitetail Canyon.

Paradise fared well as crews set a backfire that burned natural forest fuels and kept the blaze from about a dozen occupied homes and many other vacation residences.

“The fire passed through … we prevented it from reaching any structures,” Steven Berube, spokesman for the fire incident management team, told the Associated Press late Friday.

He said crews were doing the same thing around East Whitetail Canyon, where “the blaze will almost certainly be reaching.”

The fire, which is 55 percent contained, was drawing near to the eight to 10 homes there.

The nearby Chiricahua National Monument was closed as a precaution.

The Horseshoe Two fire has been burning since May 8, and about 800 firefighters were battling it.

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