- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2011

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. An enormous wildfire that forced the evacuation of several mountain communities in eastern Arizona grew Monday to more than 300 square miles, sending smoke and haze across five states and as far east as Iowa, authorities said.

Crews were expected to encounter tough conditions, with strong winds, low humidity and lightning storms expected.

Officials said the blaze has burned nearly 193,000 acres since it started more than a week ago near the White Mountain town of Alpine. Authorities think an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze.

So far, the flames have destroyed five buildings. No serious injuries have been reported.

Roughly 2,500 firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, are working to contain the wildfires, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.

Smoke from the wildfire spread to nearby states, and as many as 1,000 miles away. A ridge of high pressure was carrying the haze to central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver.

The smoke was visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Mr. Fredin said the smoke wouldn’t be noticeable in the Midwest, where humidity already makes conditions hazy. He said it could, however, produce striking orange-pink sunrises and sunsets.

In eastern Colorado, the haze obscured the view of the mountains from downtown Denver and prompted some municipal health departments to issue air quality warnings.

In Arizona, the fire and heavy smoke created pea-soup visibility, forcing the closure of several roads, including about a two-mile stretch of Highway 180 between Alpine and the New Mexico line, Mr. Frenzen said.

People in the other vacation towns packed up their belongings as smoke covered them in a smoky fog.

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Supervisor Chris Knopp speculated at a community meeting on Friday that an abandoned campfire was responsible for the fire.

The Apache County sheriff’s office told an unknown number of people in several subdivisions east of Alpine along U.S. Highway 180 to get out as the forest fire crept closer on Sunday.

At least one building was lost when the blaze crept into a subdivision of ranch homes near the New Mexico border, fire information officer Eric Neitzel said. Last week, four summer rental cabins were destroyed.

Alpine 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.

In Greer, Ariz., located within miles of the fire, many people have voluntarily left the town that has fewer than 200 year-round residents. Those who remained, mostly business owners, dealt with a mountain valley filled with smoke.


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