SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. – An eye-stinging, throat-burning haze of smoke spewing from a gigantic wildfire in eastern Arizona is beginning to stretch as far east as central New Mexico, prompting health officials to warn residents as far away as Albuquerque about potential respiratory hazards.
The 672-square-mile blaze was no longer just an Arizona problem on Saturday as firefighters moved to counter spot fires sprouting up across the state line and lighting their own fires to beat it back. The forest fire remained largely uncontained, and officials worried that the return of gusty southwesterly winds during the afternoon could once again threaten small mountain communities that had been largely saved just a few days ago.
Levels of tiny, sooty particles from the smoke in eastern Arizona were nearly 20 times the federal health standard on Saturday. The good news was that was down from roughly 40 times higher a day earlier, but it was all at the mercy of the ever-changing winds.
Today could get even worse, said Mark Shaffer of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
“Things got better, but they’re still bad,” Shaffer said Saturday.
The microscopic particles can get lodged in the lungs and cause serious health problems, both immediately and in the long term, Shaffer said.
“Larger particles, you breathe in and you cough and it tends to get rid of it,” he said, adding that the tiny particles get “very, very deep into your system and are very difficult to expel.”
Shaffer said the forecast for today was “pretty scary.”
“It’s looking very unsettled, and they’re predicting winds out of the southeast to the northeast and heavy impact along Interstate 40 … It’s very problematic for both states.”
More than 30 homes have been destroyed since the fire began May 29, thousands of residents have fled communities and the blaze posed a potential danger to two major power lines that bring electricity from Arizona to West Texas, although officials said Saturday they had so far been able to protect the routes.
Containment regressed slightly to just 5 percent, on the northeastern edge.
Nearly 10,000 people have been evacuated from the towns of Springerville and Eagar and from several other mountain communities in the forest, where officials said residents may be allowed back in soon, but also warned of lingering air pollution.