Wildfire forces evacuation of another town

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

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.

The fire was projected to have grown to nearly 365 square miles, officials said Monday, based on overnight mapping flights that have not yet been verified. 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 and 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.

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