Arizona wildfire may become biggest

2011-06-15 10:59

Luna - An enormous wildfire in eastern Arizona is poised to become the largest in state history, as firefighters on Tuesday tried to keep the blaze from crossing into New Mexico and devouring a small mountain town.

Fires also grew elsewhere in New Mexico and at the state's border with Colorado, where flames forced the closure of a busy interstate highway.

In Luna, New Mexico, evacuation plans are in place for the roughly 200 residents. Crews have been working to protect the town for days, hacking down brush, using chain saws to cut trees and setting small fires to burn anything that the approaching flames could use as fuel.

"That's what's saved the town," fire incident command spokesperson Sean Johnson said. "The line is holding."

Fires have devoured hundreds of kilometres in the Southwest and Texas since the wildfire season began several weeks ago. Scant winter precipitation in Arizona, New Mexico, part of west Texas and southern Colorado is blamed on La Nina, a term describing cooler waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that keep the jet stream from dipping down and bringing storms to the region.

Those storms instead dropped their rain and snow farther north, which has led to huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range in California and in the Rockies.

Thick forests

The wildfire outlook issued by the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho, calls for above-normal fire potential in those areas through September, but lower than normal or normal across the rest of the West.

The huge blaze in Arizona was also made worse by the extremely thick forest, the result of a century of fire suppression that has let more trees grow in the world's largest ponderosa pine forest.

Fires that once scorched only grasses and small trees on the forest floor now reach into the crowns and skip across kilometres of terrain through the treetops. Forests across the West have similar problems.

The Arizona fire has burned more than 1 898km² since May 29 and destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins. It was 20% contained as of Tuesday night, Johnson said.

The previous Arizona state record was held by the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 1 896km² but destroyed far more buildings. That blaze northwest of the current fire burned 491 buildings and cost about $400m to fight.

The current fire has surpassed that one in size, but a few thousand of the more than 189 802 hectares that have burned were in New Mexico, where firefighters had intentionally set blazes to beat it back.

Other larger fires

Officials were including the New Mexico acreage in the overall size because Johnson said it was considered part of the same Arizona fire since it originated in that state. The blaze in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is growing on all but its northern front, chewing up thousands of hectares of forest a day.

Although the fire is enormous, other US blazes between 1997 and 2009 have been much larger.

The biggest was a 2004 blaze in Alaska that burned more than 5 180km². The largest in the continental US were a 2006 Texas blaze that consumed 3 670km², followed by a 2007 Idaho fire that burned 2 637km².

About 2 700 people who live in several Arizona resort communities in the forest remained under an evacuation order. Fire officials said they were working to make the picturesque hamlets of Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer safe for residents to go home.

That task, they said, will take several more days at least.

In New Mexico, near the Colorado border, a wildfire fanned by high winds has forced hundreds of people from their homes and grown to more than 98km² since it started on Sunday. The wildfires forced the closure of Interstate 25, sending summer motorists on lengthy detours.

Another fire in southern New Mexico had burned about 607 hectares near the Carlsbad Caverns and was threatening the visitor centre and housing at the tourist destination.


- AP

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