Officials tally wildfire damage in southern Arizona

Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Dean Knuth ~ Arizona Daily StarLisa Whitacre, left, hugs Hank Tunstall on Sunday in the ruins of his father's home that burned to the ground on Ramsey Road east of Highway 92 as the Monument fire burns near Sierra Vista, Ariz.

PHOENIX -- Authorities in southern Arizona on Monday were going through neighborhoods to tally the damage from a wildfire that was pushed by fierce winds into a heavily-populated area, burning homes and businesses.

Officials say the fire came off a mountain Sunday afternoon into the outskirts of Sierra Vista and forced about 3,000 residents of 1,700 homes to flee.

The evacuations brought the total number to about 10,000 people from 4,300 homes forced out by the Monument fire.

The blaze began June 12 and had destroyed 44 homes before Sunday.

Among the confirmed losses Sunday was a popular Mexican restaurant. Officials expected to get a confirmed count of the losses by midday, said Carol Capas, a spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.

"I can't speculate right now," Capas said Monday. "We really need to wait and see."

Much lighter winds Monday were allowing aircraft to again attack several fires in Arizona and New Mexico. Air crews had been grounded for most of Sunday. Firefighting efforts have been dogged for days by hot, windy weather.

Meanwhile, the massive Wallow fire that has been burning in eastern Arizona for three weeks kept about 200 residents of Luna, N.M., under an evacuation order for a third day.

One of the last areas in Arizona still evacuated was reopening Monday. Residents of the picturesque resort town of Greer were being issued passes to return home.

Early in the day, Greer fire chief Mark Wade was personally escorting the owners of 22 destroyed homes in first.

Blaming illegal aliens

Touring the Wallow fire area on Saturday, Sen. John McCain said "there was substantial evidence" that some of the fires in southern Arizona may have been started by illegal immigrants and tighter border security would have prevented them.

On Monday, his office issued a clarification, saying he was not referring to the eastern Arizona blaze.

"The facts are clear. For years, federal, state and local officials have stated that smugglers and illegal immigrants have caused fires on our southern border," said a statement from Brooke Buchanan, McCain's communications director.

"During the news conference on Saturday, Senator McCain was referring to fires on the Arizona/Mexico border, not the Wallow Fire."

Federal officials have said all the fires were caused by humans, but have not determined whether activity by illegal immigrants was responsible.

The Wallow fire has consumed 811 square miles, or 519,319 acres, and more than 3,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. It is larger than a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings that had been the largest in state history.

Despite its size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins. Containment rose to 51 percent Sunday.

The Wallow fire, which is burning up much of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, is the largest of several wildfires burning in spots across the southwestern U.S. In other fires:

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