Residents at the eastern edge of Arizona's White Mountains were ordered to evacuate their homes Thursday as a fast-moving forest fire bore down on the mountain communities of Alpine, Nutrioso and Blue.
The Wallow Fire, which grew to 60,000 acres in its first four days, consumed more big trees in the Apache National Forest Thursday, with winds that pushed it toward Alpine, 13 miles from the fire's start. Alpine was ordered evacuated by 8 p.m. as the fire approached.
The fire is torching the canopy of the trees in places, and embers are igniting spot fires up to three miles in advance of the flames.
"Once it gets that plume-dominated effect, you just have to stay out of the way to keep people safe," said Bruce Greco of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. Greco did research in the area recently as part of a plan to restore the forest with tree-thinning and introduced fire.
The area burning is thick with ponderosa pine on the south slopes and a mix of pine, fir and spruce on the north, he said. "Those north slopes with the white fir, Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce are close to the ground and not very fire-resilient," he said.
Winds were milder than predicted Thursday, but the fire continued to grow, and crews and aircraft fighting the fire were hampered by dense smoke, said Mary Johnson, spokeswoman for the Eastern Arizona Incident Management Team.
"It's hard to fly because of the smoke," Johnson said.
The area around Alpine is sparsely populated, with 144 households and a population of 330, according to the Alpine Chamber of Commerce.
But the region's lakes, trout streams, cabins and campgrounds are heavily visited in summer. The ever-widening forest closure now includes the summer tourist mecca of Big Lake.
Eric Neitzel, spokesman for the Apache County Sheriff's Office, said that agency, assisted by Navajo County, was able to inform and evacuate all of the residents of the Alpine area.
He worried, though, about the fire's spread.
"I haven't seen anything like this since '02," Neitzel said. In June and July of 2002, two wildfires combined to devastate the west end of the forests of the White Mountains. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned through 468,638 acres before being stopped west of Show Low.
New fires broke out across Arizona Thursday, as far south as Patagonia and as far north as Flagstaff, while big fires continued to burn in the Chiricahua Mountains and on the slopes of the Tumacacori Mountains west of Tubac.
A small fire that started at mid-morning Thursday along Arizona 82 between Patagonia and Nogales briefly closed that highway. It grew to 81 acres and was contained at about 4 p.m., said Cam Hunter, spokeswoman for the Arizona Forestry Division.
Hunter said the fire was reported by the pilot of an air tanker on his way to the nearby Murphy Fire.
The Murphy Fire, burning grass and shrubs in hilly terrain on the west side of the Tumacacori Mountains west of Tubac, had burned 14,100 acres as of Thursday. No buildings were threatened by the fire.
The Empire 2 Fire, a 600-plus acre fire burning in tall grass in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, 10 miles north of Sonoita, was 90 percent contained and not threatening any structures.
The Horseshoe 2 Fire, burning since May 8 in the Chiricahua Mountains, 110 miles southwest of Tucson, had burned through 86,000 acres by Thursday, making it the fifth-largest forest fire in Arizona history. The community of Paradise was being evacuated Thursday, for the second time since the fire began. Chiricahua National Monument also was evacuated. The blaze is only 50 percent contained.
West of Flagstaff, the Engineer Fire was burning 120 acres of forest used for training at Camp Navajo, the Arizona Daily Sun reported. If the fire gets within a mile of Interstate 40, officials will shut the freeway down, the Sun reported.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.