SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. – Stiff winds whipped up a gigantic blaze in the mountains of eastern Arizona on Monday, forcing the evacuation of a third resort town and casting a smoky haze over states as far away as Iowa.
Winds of about 30 mph, with gusts above 60 mph, blew heavy smoke from the fire into Greer, a picturesque town where most of the 200 fulltime residents had already fled. Everyone still there and in the nearby area known as Sunrise were ordered to leave Monday afternoon.
"It's heartbreaking," Allan Johnson, owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge in Greer, the oldest in the state, said of the fire barreling down on the resort town. 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.
Late Monday, a huge pall of black smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eager and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people, and sheriff's officials told residents there to prepare to leave.
The winds and expected lightning are making matters worse in an area dotted with cabins and campgrounds that have long provided a cool summer getaway from the oppressive heat of the nearby desert.
"It's probably, and I'm going to say this, going crazy," fire information officer Kelly Wood said of the fire.
"It's coming from the southeast and it's pushing everything to the northeast," Wood said. "We don't know exactly how far it's gone. It's fair to say it's going to grow with these winds."
The fire was estimated at about 360 square miles, officials said Monday night. Officials believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze more than a week ago.
Several hundred people turned out for a community meeting Monday night at which fire officials urged residents to be ready to evacuate if the fire continues to grow. They vowed to give residents of Eager and Springerville as much notice as possible of an evacuation.
So far, the flames have destroyed five buildings and scorched nearly 230,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest. No serious injuries have been reported. The blaze nearly doubled in size between Saturday and Monday.
About 2,700 to 3,000 people are believed to have fled Alpine and Nutrioso late last week and headed to larger towns for shelter, 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 wildfires, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.
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.
She praised the work of the federal government in fighting the flames.
"The federal government has stepped up and done their job and we believe we have everything that is necessary at this point in time to keep everything under control," Brewer said.
Brewer also praised the firefighters battling the fires.
"We feel at this point in time that all the boots that are necessary are on the ground now," she said.
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.
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.
Heavy smoke had also blanketed Gallup, N.M. By Monday evening, smoke was filling the valley surrounding Albuquerque.
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, Frenzen said.
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Supervisor Chris Knopp speculated at a community meeting on Friday that an abandoned campfire was responsible for the fire.
At least one building was lost when the blaze crept into a subdivision of ranch homes near the New Mexico border on Sunday, 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 Nutrioso and several lodges and camps in the scenic high country.
In Springerville, about 15 miles from Greer, a 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 feed and other supplies for their horses and livestock as they make preparations to evacuate.
Some have already left homes that are closer to the fire. Larry Hoppe was one of them.
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," Hoppe said.
Firefighters have, so far, kept the flames out of Alpine and Nutrioso. Joe Reinarz, commander of the Type I team battling the fire, said the blaze was burning hot around the Alpine Country Club area on Monday. He could not confirm whether any structures were damaged.
Residents of the New Mexico town of Luna, about 15 miles east of Alpine, were warned Monday to be prepared to evacuate if the fire closes in.
The fire is the state's third-largest, 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, the state's fifth-largest, burned in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities.
The 163-square-mile blaze devoured two summer cabins and four outbuildings in recent days but weren't reported earlier because crews couldn't reach them, fire management spokeswoman Karen Ripley said.
Firefighters were fortifying containment lines to protect Whitetail and Chiricahua National Monument, and despite hot weather and wind gusts over 35 mph, the 104,285-acre fire did not move significantly toward the lines, incident commanders said in an update late Monday.
The fire danger in tinder-dry Arizona prompted the full closure of the Coronado National Forest near Tucson beginning on Thursday.
Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.
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