SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. – Flames from a mammoth forest fire licked the ridges surrounding the eastern Arizona town of Eagar on Tuesday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of about half the 4,000 residents as surrounding towns also prepared to empty.
People started streaming out of Eagar as sheriff’s deputies and police officers directed traffic. Flames were spotted on a ridge on the southeastern side of nearby Springerville and columns of orange smoke rose from the hills.
Angie Colwell, her husband Mike and their two children were loading up their belonging as authorities ordered their Eagar neighborhood to evacuate.
“We love the mountains and we’re just afraid of what’s going to be left after the fire comes through,” the longtime resident said.
The blaze has burned 486 square miles of ponderosa pine forest, driven by wind gusts of more than 60 mph since it was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire. It officially became the second-largest in Arizona history on Tuesday.
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 Apache County Sheriff’s Office issued the evacuation 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.
Eagar has about 4,000 residents, while Springerville has another 2,000. In all, about 7,000 people have been ordered to prepare for evacuation in recent days.
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.
Thousands of firefighters hope to keep the flames from getting into Springerville and Eagar. 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.