- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — Smoke from a large wildfire burning in the scenic mountain towns of eastern Arizona stretched into nearby states, creating hazy conditions in Iowa and prompting officials to issue health advisories Tuesday for the southern half of Colorado.

The 365-square-mile blaze has been burning in ponderosa forests for more than a week, destroying five buildings since it started May 29. It marched north Monday, aided by wind gusts of more than 60 mph.

The weather settled down overnight, but the crews and their commanders know what’s in store.

“The bad news is it’s supposed to pick back up all the way through Thursday,” Joe Reinarz, commander of the team battling the fire, told an auditorium packed with residents of the mountain vacation towns late Monday.

“We’ve got about three or four days ahead of us right now that are going to try all of us,” he said before urging them to prepare for evacuations.

The fire has forced people to leave their homes in Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer, a picturesque town where most of the 200 full-time residents already had fled by the time deputies started going door-to-door. Authorities also ordered anyone left in the nearby area known as Sunrise to leave.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Allan Johnson, owner of Greer’s 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge, the oldest in the state. He was pessimistic about the chances of saving the lodge and the hundreds of vacation homes in the area.

“We’re numb. Our entire family and our friends are just numb,” he said.

Residents of Eagar, Ariz., also are bracing for a possible evacuation.

“If given the word, then I’m gonna go,” Gerald McCardle told Associated Press Radio. “We’re already packed. We packed last night, and we’re out of here.”

As the sun went down Monday, a huge pall of black smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eagar and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people. Haze from the fire was being carried by a ridge of high pressure as far as central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver.

The smoke was also visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. Colorado health officials issued a smoke health advisory on Tuesday, saying that the southern half of the state could see moderate to heavy smoke through noon.

In Arizona, heavy smoke forced the closure of several roads, including about a two-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 180 between Alpine and the New Mexico line, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.

In Springerville, the giant plume of white smoke that had billowed thousands of feet into the air turned black as dusk neared. The smell of smoke permeated the community, and nerves were rattled.

David Chimera, owner of the Spur Feeds Store at the edge of town, said customers have been coming in to buy supplies as they make preparations to evacuate.

Some already have left homes that are closer to the fire. Larry Hoppe was one of them.

Mr. Hoppe, who lives with his family near Nutrioso, was on vacation in Arkansas when he heard about the fire. He said his two horses were too spooked by the smoke, wind and commotion to be loaded up and had to remain at his home.

“The good Lord has given us plenty of time. We didn’t have to do anything in a panic mode. We had time to make an orderly evacuation. It’s amazing the blessings you get as the storm is going on,” Mr. Hoppe said.

About 2,700 to 3,000 people are believed to have fled Alpine and Nutrioso late last week, Gov. Jan Brewer said.

Roughly 2,500 firefighters, including many from several Western states and as far away as New York, are working to contain the fire, Mr. Frenzen said. No serious injuries have been reported.

Mrs. Brewer signed an emergency declaration Monday that will allow the use of $200,000 in emergency funds and authorizes the mobilization of the National Guard if it becomes necessary.

The fire is the state’s third-largest ever, behind a 2002 blaze that blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes and a fire in 2005 that burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek.

Another major wildfire was burning in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities. A 163-square-mile blaze has devoured two summer cabins and four outbuildings since it started May 8.

Firefighters were fortifying containment lines to protect Whitetail and the Chiricahua National Monument, and despite hot weather and wind gusts of more than 35 mph, the 104,000-acre fire did not move significantly toward the lines, incident commanders said late Monday.

The fire danger in tinder-dry Arizona prompted the full closure of the Coronado National Forest near Tucson beginning Thursday.

In south-central Utah, a 60-acre wildfire prompted voluntary evacuations of about 200 homes late Monday west of scenic Moab.

Bob Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Mark Carlson and Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.


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