Fires Burn More Than 80,000 Acres in N.M.; Arizona Fire Battle Continues

The head of the team fighting a 4,000-acre wildfire in Sedona on Friday reassured evacuees about the safety of their homes in the scenic northern Arizona canyon but emphasized that the battle isn't won yet.

"This fire is like a caged-up coyote," said Mike Dondero, deputy incident commander for the fire. "It's trying to get out 24 hours a day."

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Firefighters were also concerned Friday that possible storms could bring strong and erratic winds that would whip the fire out of control.

The fire began Sunday as a transient's campfire and quickly spread to steep, rugged terrain above Oak Creek Canyon, a lush area dotted with homes and resorts. Officials said the fire was 17 percent contained Friday, with full containment predicted by June 28.

"That's a red flag. That's a watch-out situation," said Mike Dondero, deputy incident commander for the fire. "It could hit and blow stuff all over the place."

Broyles said residents may be allowed to return to their homes in two to four days. They're being kept out partly because embers could still start fires in the canyon. No homes have burned.

"Currently, we're winning, but Mother Nature bats last every day," said Rod Collins, another fire commander.

Nora Walker-Yeager, who was allowed to return to her Oak Creek Canyon home Thursday to pick up belongings, grabbed her wedding book, her husband's wedding ring and her engagement ring.

"If it burns, we've got the things that are most important to us," Walker-Yeager said.

In New Mexico, firefighters have vowed to win the next round against a fast-moving fire that has burned 42,884 acres of dense stands of ponderosa pine and spruce-fir.

The Bear Fire burning in the Gila National Forest 15 miles northeast of Glenwood was only 5 percent contained Friday.

The intensity of the blaze Thursday afternoon and thunderstorms that brought erratic winds forced the Forest Service to pull out crews in the Willow Creek area for their safety, fire information officer Brian Morris said Friday.

"Yesterday was not a good day for us," Morris said. "The weather and the fire, they won the round yesterday. We're back in the ring today, and we know were going to be the ones that prevail."

Several fires burning throughout the state have charred more than 80,000 acres in the past week.

The Bear Fire is burning on mesas and steep canyons at elevations of 6,000 to 9,000 feet. Morris said homes that were evacuated in the Willow Creek area remained intact, but were still threatened by fire around them.

Fire crews also were working on the east side of the fire, which moved toward Bear Wallow Mountain and Bear Wallow lookout.

The battle is getting only limited help from fire retardant bombers because the planes are needed more urgently elsewhere, Morris said.

"We have to set priorities, and there's fires with more threats, homes, communities, that are higher priority for that aircraft," he said. "And that's the right thing to do."

Some 276 people are assigned to the Bear Fire.

"Because of all the fires in the southwest area, it is hard to get enough people," Morris acknowledged. "Everybody needs all types of resources, so it's pushing us."

Investigators said the fire, which broke out Monday, was started by a campfire.

The 12,461-acre Skates Fire in the Gila some seven miles northeast of Pinos Altos has not grown in several days, but continues to burn within the perimeter. The fire was listed as 70 percent contained Friday, and officials expect it to be fully contained Saturday night.

The fire, which broke out June 2, had forced the closure of some recreation areas. Officials scheduled a Friday evening reopening for day use areas around Lake Roberts and the Upper End and Mesa campgrounds.

About 100 miles northwest, two other fires that were sparked by lightning June 6 in pine forests in the Gila National Park were 85 percent contained Friday.

The Wilson Fire, nine miles northeast of Reserve, and the Martinez Fire, 12 miles southwest of Reserve, are dubbed the Reserve Complex. Together, they have blackened 15,840 acres.

In the Diamond A ranch area of southwestern New Mexico, the 1,000-acre lightning-sparked Eicks Draw Fire threatened some ranch buildings Thursday. Officials called off an air tanker after the threat diminished.

The blaze was 10 percent contained as of Friday.

In northeastern New Mexico, the Rivera Mesa Fire has burned an estimated 11,040 acres of state and private land five miles northeast of Ocate.

Firefighters flanked its southeastern side and conducted burnout operations. The blaze was listed as 50 percent contained Friday.

North of Raton, crews had the 1,500-acre Bartlett Fire 70 percent contained, said Dan Ware, state Forestry Division spokesman. Crews were working areas on a mesa where the fire had worked into very rocky terrain.

The blaze briefly threatened a radio tower and some power lines, but those were out of danger.

In southern Colorado, a 13,100-acre Mato Vega wildfire was 35 percent contained. Residents from a 62-house subdivision were heading home Friday, and motorists were being allowed to travel again on U.S. 160, which had been closed since Monday.

About 230 homes remain under an evacuation order.

The fire was sparked by lightning last Sunday near Fort Garland and grew quickly in the dry, windy conditions.

Crews made progress yesterday but are bracing for drier weather and a likely increase in activity.

Cafe owner Luisa Sena said she was relieved to learn the highway, the main east-west route across southern Colorado, was reopening because she depends on the summer months to make most of the money to pay her nine workers. Without any tourists or truckers passing along the highway through the town at the gateway to the historic San Luis Valley, business slowed to a standstill.

"It's tough in the winter. It doesn't need to be like this in the summer," said Sena, owner of Lu's Mainstreet CafDe in neighboring Blanca.

In western Colorado, a 1,530-acre wildfire started by a car wreck Tuesday was 25 percent contained. The fire was burning in juniper, oak and ponderosa pine in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, about 225 miles southwest of Denver near the Utah border.

Also in western Colorado, a 1,660-acre fire started by a car wreck on Tuesday is five percent contained, and officials have called for evacuations of about ten vacation cabins around Buckeye Reservoir in Montrose County.

In southern California, firefighters were holding their ground against a wildfire that has consumed nearly 15,000 acres of chaparral, pine and grasslands in Los Padres National Forest, officials said.

Fire crews prevented a 10-mile-long swath of flames from rolling over a ridge line bordering a wilderness area that has larger trees and brush, said Forest Service spokesman Joe Pasinato. The fire was 57 percent contained, officials said.

"Today was a key day," said Pasinato. "The fire did not make any rapid advances."