June 15, 2011 in Nation/World

Arizona fire nears record-setting size

Brian Skoloff Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

The sun sets behind smoke from the Wallow fire Tuesday in Luna, N.M.
(Full-size photo)

Fire’s reach

 The Arizona fire has burned more than 733 square miles since Memorial Day weekend and destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins. It was 20 percent contained as of Tuesday night.

 Officials expected the blaze to become Arizona’s largest by this morning.

LUNA, N.M. – An enormous wildfire in eastern Arizona is poised to become the largest in state history, as firefighters Tuesday tried to keep it from devouring a small New Mexico mountain town, and authorities questioned two people about an abandoned campfire that may have started the blaze.

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.

Kelly Wood, a spokesman for the multiple agencies battling the massive Arizona fire, said late Tuesday that two people of interest were being questioned but he couldn’t provide any further details.

In Luna, N.M., across the Arizona state line, evacuation plans were 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 spokesman Sean Johnson said. “The line is holding.”

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 miles of terrain through the treetops. Forests across the West have similar problems.

The Arizona fire has burned more than 733 square miles since Memorial Day weekend and destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins. It was 20 percent contained as of Tuesday night, Johnson said.

Arizona’s largest fire was the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 732 square miles but destroyed far more buildings. That blaze northwest of the current fire burned 491 buildings and cost about $400 million to fight.

The current fire has surpassed the Rodeo-Chediski fire in size, but it still wasn’t considered Arizona’s largest fire as of Tuesday night because about 3,000 of the more than 469,000 acres that have burned were in New Mexico, where firefighters had intentionally set blazes to keep back uncontrolled flames, Johnson said. Officials expected the blaze to become Arizona’s largest by morning, he said.

The fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest was growing on all but its northern front, chewing up thousands of acres of forest a day.

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 38 square miles. The blaze near Raton was burning on both sides of Interstate 25.

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