By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Firefighters battling a monster blaze in eastern Arizona faced a second day of strong winds buffeting the area on Friday, testing hard-fought gains made on the largest fire in state history.
More than 4,400 firefighters were deployed on the 20th day of the blaze amid predictions of low humidity and gusty winds in and around the fire-ravaged Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
A red flag warning is in effect for the area on Friday, with forecasts of sustained winds from 15 to 25 miles per hour and gusts of up to 45 miles per hour.
Fire spokesman John Helmich said officials were confident the fire lines will hold and spot blazes will be extinguished quickly despite the adverse conditions.
"At the end of the day on Thursday, no lines were crossed by the fires," Helmich said. "But they are still looking at today as a major test."
Officials said on Friday that the Wallow Fire has claimed more than 495,000 acres or 774 square miles of pine-studded acreage in the heart of Arizona's White Mountains, with fire crews able to muster containment around roughly a third of the blaze.
The fire has destroyed or damaged three dozen homes and displaced up to 10,000 people at its peak, raging through a picturesque area near the New Mexico border dotted with vacation cabins that is a popular retreat for those escaping the state's summer heat.
The conflagration erupted May 29, apparently from a campfire left unattended in a thickly wooded stretch of the Bear Wallow Wilderness area, just east of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
Forest Service officials said two "persons of interest" were being questioned by fire investigators, but no arrests have been made. The investigation continues.
On Wednesday, authorities allowed residents to return to the town of Nutrioso, one of several Arizona communities evacuated during the first week of the blaze.
Two other towns, Alpine and Greer, remain evacuated with their return date uncertain in light of the high winds, fire officials said. The New Mexico town of Luna, an enclave of about 200 people less than 10 miles east of the Arizona border, was still on alert for possible evacuation.
The bulk of Arizona evacuees forced from their homes at the height of the fire were allowed back on Sunday when evacuation orders were lifted for 7,000 to 8,000 residents of Eagar and Springerville. But on Thursday, residents of about 230 homes were told to be ready to leave if the stiff winds blow the fire over containment lines.
The Wallow Fire has surpassed the 468,638 acres charred in 2002 by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in eastern Arizona. That fire destroyed 465 homes.
By comparison, the Wallow Fire has so far gutted 32 homes and damaged five others. Some three dozen nonresidential structures also have been lost. But no serious injuries have been reported.
(Editing by Greg McCune)