Wallow Fire: Largest fire in Arizona history still growing

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SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (KTVK) -- The Wallow Fire burning in Eastern Arizona has grown to about 495,016  acres, officially making it the largest wildfire in Arizona's history. The Wallow Fire displaced 2002's monster Rodeo-Chediski Fire Tuesday morning.

Thousands of crews are currently battling the blaze, and while they had a tough time getting the upper hand on the wind-whipped flames early on, they finally managed to get 10 percent containment Sunday. That has since doubled to 20 percent.

The wildfire has been burning out of control since May 29, the flames fanned and embers spread by high winds for several days running.

Those winds are expected to return with a vengeance this weekend with gust up to 50 mph possible. That brings the concern that blowing embers could spark spot fires as far as five to seven miles from the main fire.

"We're a long ways from talking about containment," Jim Whittington of the Bureau of Land Management said last Thursday morning. Even though there is now some amount of containment, fire managers said they do expect the Wallow Fire to grow, both on its own and due to burnout operations designed to deprive the fire of fuel. Whittington said much of the growth in the past 24 hours can be attributed to controlled burnouts.

At this point, the total area of the wildfire is significantly larger than the entire city of Phoenix. The largest city in Arizona and one of the top 10 physically biggest cities in the country, Phoenix covers 519 square miles. The latest infrared data puts the Wallow Fire at about 773 square miles.

While achieving some containment has been a boost to crews' morale, they are not getting complacent because they know the battle is far from over and the potential for more red flag conditions is very real.

Still, there are several areas of the fire that are are "looking good," Whittington said. The massive fire has been separated into three management zones in order to better allocate resources and and fight the flames as effectively as possible.

After the fire made a run at Greer last Wednesday night, crews spent much of Thursday taking measures to protect the mountain community and assessing the damage that had already been done.
(Read: Few homes burned in Greer)

While there have been some issues in the Nutrioso area, Whittington said crews are confident in the lines they have cut there. Firefighters were planning mop-up operations, which means ground crews were dousing embers and making sure there is nothing that can re-ignite the flames.

Mother Nature offered a slight break to crews on the fire lines Thursday. Even though they will likely pick up a bit in the afternoon, winds out of the southwest were much lighter than they have been. That break is expected to continue Friday before winds kick up again over the weekend.

On Monday, those wind gusts were in the 40 mph range. Tuesday, they were down to the 30 mph range. Even though the winds do appear to be lessening, it's still a big problem for fire crews. The winds have not only caused extreme fire behavior over the past several days, they also have been picking up embers, sparking spot fires as far as three miles ahead the main fire. The winds also dropped ash on Springerville and Eagar early Tuesday afternoon before official evacuation orders were issued.

There's some concern that the wind gusts could be back in the 35-mph range this weekend. Crews are scrambling to do what they can before that happens. They've already cut miles of dozer lines and conducted backburn operations to clear out dead trees and flammable foliage to deprive the wildfire of fuel.

Whittington said managers will be watching closely to see how the work planned for Friday stands up to winds when they kick back up this weekend.

"We have an atmosphere today that's conducive to large fire growth," Whittington said Friday morning. "We just don't have the winds. ... We have until 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock tomorrow morning before these winds start to pick up. We've got to get everything that we possibly can done by then".

There are more than 4,100 firefighters on the scene, including 24 hotshot crews and 79 handcrews. Quite a bit of equipment has been brought in; there are 18 bulldozers, 197 engines, 61 water tenders,16 helicopters and one DC-10 tanker.

"That's a lot of people," Whittington said. "It's a big fire and it deserves a lot of people."

Crews on the ground are working day and night shifts so that there are teams on the fire lines around the clock. In addition to building fire lines, firefighters are doing perimeter control, structure protection and patrolling for spot fires.

The weather pattern that has been fanning the flames and causing such problems for crews on the fire lines is also spreading the smoke from the wildfire far and wide. Smoke from the Wallow Fire has been carried as far east as central Iowa. That's a distance of more than 1,000 miles. That blanket of smoke is causing or exacerbating respiratory problems for people living in several states between Arizona and Iowa.

The communities of Sunrise, Greer, Blue River, Alpine and Nutrioso were evacuated, as were several subdivisions along highways 180/191. On Wednesday, Springerville and Eagar were evacuated.

Nutrioso residents will be allowed to return home Wednesday at 10 a.m.

A pre-evacuation order has been issued for Greens Peak, Hidden Meadow and the surrounding area. A pre-evacuation order put out earlier in the week remained in place for Luna, N.M. Residents in those areas are advised to be prepared to leave in case an evacuation order comes down. The fire reportedly crossed the border into New Mexico on Wednesday.
(Latest evacuation information | How to prepare )

Whittington said evacuees -- nearly 10,000 people -- will not be allowed to return until officials are positive that they will not have to be evacuated a second time.

Some of those evacuation orders were lifted this week, but residents were warned that the air quality was bad and advised to perhaps wait a few more days before returning home.

In addition to the evacuations, Apache National Forest is closed to all public entry. That order was put in place on June 3.

Since the blaze began in the Bear Wallow Wilderness area (hence the name) on May 29, at least 29 homes, most of them in Greer, have been destroyed, along with two dozen outbuildings and one truck, Whittington said. Another five homes in Greer have been damaged. Those numbers have been fluctuating as information continues to pour in. Whittington said officials will not be releasing any more details until they can notify the property owners. The Apache County Sheriff's Officer is in the process of making those notifications.

Gov. Jan Brewer visited the evacuation center and surveyed the damage for a second time on Thursday.

Last Monday, she signed an emergency declaration that will allow the use of $200,000 in emergency funds and authorizes the mobilization of the National Guard if it becomes necessary.

Brewer toured the area over the weekend and addressed the media from the Wallow Fire Joint Information Center in Springerville.  Brewer called the blaze "horrific" and said it was "the likes of a fire of which I have never experienced from the air."

Fire managers said the Wallow Fire is human caused and is under investigation. There are rumors that an unattended camp fire might be to blame for the wildfire, but at this point, nobody knows for sure if that's what happened.

Wallow Fire Health Advisory for Area Residents and Visitors

Hazardous smoke conditions continue to exist for multiple communities in the area. The ADEQ monitor in Springerville reports air quality as hazardous. People with heart or lung disease, older adults and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low. Those suffering from respiratory problems are encouraged to leave the area for now as long as it is safe to do so.

Residents are urged to review this information from the Arizona Office of Environmental Health: Wildfire Smoke and your Health.