High winds pose problems in fight against Southwest wildfires

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 19, 2011 5:03 PM
High winds pose problems in fight against Southwest wildfires

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - High winds posed a fresh challenge to firefighters battling wildfires on Sunday in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where authorities warned that powerful gusts could help the blazes spread quickly.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for several states in the Southwest, where wind gusts could reach as much as 60 miles an hour, it said.

"This is the highest the winds have been since the fire started," said Terry Stemmler, a fire task force spokesman. "If we get through today, we're going to be looking good."

The Wallow Fire, which has roared through eastern Arizona and burned into western New Mexico, remains the largest conflagration in the region. It began on May 29.

It has destroyed 32 homes and charred a record 511,000 acres, or about 800 square miles. However, nearly 3,600 firefighters have the blaze 44 percent contained and so far no major injuries have been reported.

Luna, New Mexico, was under renewed threat that the winds could shift the Wallow blaze close to the small town, said Tom Roach, a fire spokesman.

Residents of Luna evacuated their homes when a spot fire jumped containment lines on Saturday, but fire crews were able to shift the blaze away from the town.

Greer, Arizona, a roughly 200-person community, also was evacuated due to the Wallow Fire, which is believed to have been sparked by an unattended campfire.

As the Wallow Fire burned through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest region, another fast-moving blaze in Arizona has grown in recent days.

The Monument Fire, burning near the Mexican border a few miles south of Sierra Vista, Arizona, has forced the evacuation of nearly 7,000 people and destroyed 47 homes since it began last Sunday. It has scorched about 21,000 acres.

Forecasts call for dry conditions, with sustained winds of up to 32 miles per hour and gusts of up to 45 miles per hour buffeting the area of the Monument Fire.

With more than 1,000 firefighters on the attack, the Monument Fire was 27 percent contained on Sunday.

"We're going to try to hold on to what we've been able to gain so far," said Bill Paxton, a spokesman for the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.

"We are making gains," he said.

Meanwhile, one of the largest wildfires in east Texas history was burning through about 14,000 acres on Sunday.

Two homes were destroyed, but no injuries were reported in the fire, which started on Friday and was 40 percent contained on Sunday, said Richard Reuse of the Texas Forest Service.

High winds, low humidity and high temperatures were making it difficult for firefighters to battle the blaze, he said.

(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks: Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Ellen Wulfhorst)