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Gazette Premium Content Wildfires break out in southern Colo.; Ariz. evacuations ordered

Staff reports Updated: June 7, 2011 at 12:00 am

LA JUNTA — Several wildfires have broken out in Las Animas County in southern Colorado.

The sheriff's office said firefighters and other emergency personnel responded to four or five separate fires Tuesday afternoon. Officials say it's unclear if any buildings are threatened.

Fire spokesman Joey Gacnik said early Wednesday that a fire near La Junta had reached an estimated 6,500 acres.

Fire officials tell KRDO-TV that a fire burning near Kim has grown to 10 square miles. Several area agencies are fighting the blaze.

Firefighting crews are battling two wildland fires at Fort Carson's Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site.

The first fire was discovered Tuesday morning and a second was later found about 15 miles to the west on the military property used to train soldiers.

Base spokesman Randy Tisor says the latest fire has burned about 3,000 acres.

The other fire has burned about 2,000 acres on the maneuver site as well as U.S. Forest Service land in Las Animas County.

Despite a record snowpack across much of the state the risk of new fires starting and spreading is high Wednesday all across southern Colorado, including the area around Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Two wildfires burned a total of 20 square miles last week in Las Animas County.

Arizona update

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — About 2,000 residents of the eastern Arizona town of Eagar were ordered to evacuate Tuesday as flames from a raging forest fire appeared on ridges surrounding the town and neighboring Springerville. More evacuations were likely.

Firefighters had spent the day working feverously to prepare a defense for the two towns as residents — told earlier that an evacuation order was likely — prepared to leave.

The Apache County Sheriff's Office issued the order for areas south of Highway 260 and east of Greer just before 4 p.m. The highway will be closed after the evacuation is complete.

Sheriff's deputies and police officers from the communities were in the streets directing traffic as people started to stream out of Eagar. Flames have been spotted on a ridge on the southeastern side of Springerville and columns of orange smoke were rising from the hills.

Eagar has about 4,000 residents, while Springerville has another 2,000. In all, about 7,000 people were ordered to prepare for evacuation in recent days.

The blaze has burned 486 square miles of ponderosa pine forest since it started on May 29 and is the second-biggest in Arizona history. Several tiny resort towns in the nearby Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest were evacuated earlier.

Earlier in the day, bulldozers scraped away brush and trees to create a barrier between the towns and the approaching flames in the surrounding mountains. Other crews removed brush from around homes and firefighters were sent to protect buildings from the flames. Many residents were ready for the order to get out.

"If given the word, then I'm gonna go," Eagar resident Gerald McCardle said. "We're already packed. We packed last night, and we're out of here."

The American Red Cross has an evacuation center at the high school about 15 miles west in Lakeside, Ariz. that can handle several thousand people, spokesman Mark Weldon said.

The center was opened at Blue Ridge high after last week's evacuation of about 2,700 people from nearly mountain communities. Extra cots, blankets and comfort kits were rushed to the school early Tuesday as the threat heightened.

The flames were about 10 miles outside the towns early Tuesday. Winds have been driving the flames 5 to 8 miles a day since the fire began a week ago, possibly from an unattended campfire.

Strong afternoon winds kicked up Tuesday but were less fierce than expected.

"The worst-case scenario is we're going to order an evacuation and the fire is going to burn up to the homes here," fire incident command spokesman Steve Miller said before the order was issued. "Or to wherever we stand and defend, hopefully not further than that."

Thousands of firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, hope to keep the flames from getting into Springerville and Eager, which sit in grassland at the edge of the forest.

With a blaze as large as this being driven by unpredictable and gusty winds, putting the fire out is a gargantuan task. All fire managers can do is try to steer it away from homes and cabins by using natural terrain, burning out combustible material first and trying to put out spot fires sparked by embers blowing in front of the main fire front.

New mapping showed that some fire breaks have held but the wildfire was still considered zero percent contained Tuesday.

Dozens of firefighters worked Tuesday alongside a stretch of Highway 191 about two miles outside of Springerville, burning combustible material such as vegetation along one side of the road in an effort to keep the approaching fire from jumping across and heading into town.

Puffs of smoke billowed from underneath juniper and pinyon trees as flames licked at the trees.

Jeff Brink, a member of an Idaho-based Bureau of Land Management fire crew, had spent the better part of Tuesday doing burnouts and making sure the flames stayed on one side of the highway while warily watching the weather.

"Obviously, with these winds, when we're burning out the wind can shift," Brink said.

In Springerville, it was raining ash and the sky was filled with thick smoke. When the sun peeked through, it was blood-red.

No serious injuries have been reported, but the fire has destroyed five buildings so far. It has cast smoke as far east as Iowa and forced some planes to divert from Albuquerque, N.M., some 200 miles away.

The fire has grown most on the north side, as winds whipped flames through the national forest, fire incident command spokeswoman Dellora Guager said.

Winds whipping the fire Monday drove the last holdouts from the small resort town of Greer. By Tuesday, Greer, Alpine and the other tiny resort towns near the New Mexico border were still standing.

The future of the towns remained in doubt because there was no sign winds would stop in the coming days and no rain at all was in the forecast. Authorities warned Springerville and Eagar residents that they may have to join about 2,700 others who have already fled.

The blaze has consumed 311,481 acres since it started May 29. It has been propelled by wind gusts of more than 60 mph. Fire officials said the blaze died down a bit overnight and crews planned to work on its northeast side Tuesday.

A giant smoke plume that lingered over Springerville a day ago had dissipated Tuesday morning, leaving behind haze. The wind, forecast at 35 mph, remained a concern, said fire information officer Kelly Wood.

Smoke from the fires was worst in the towns just north of the blaze, including Eagar and Springerville. But haze 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 Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Kansas.

Colorado health officials canceled a smoke health advisory Tuesday as smoke cleared from the southern half of the state. Two airliners headed to Albuquerque were diverted Monday night because of smoke and high winds.

The state's largest blaze came in 2002 when flames blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes. A fire in 2005 burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek and consumed 11 homes.

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

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