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High Winds Challenge Crews Battling Arizona, New Mexico Wildfires

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June 18: The Monument fire burns in Sierra Vista, Ariz. The fire continues to threaten Sierra Vista but firefighters got a handle on its most worrisome flare-up in Miller Canyon. The human-caused fire, which started Sunday, is now at more than 19,000 acres. (AP)

Authorities ordered more evacuations Sunday as crews battling a pair of wildfires in Arizona and on the New Mexico border faced extremely high winds that drove flames across containment lines and toward populated areas.

The new evacuations were near the southern Arizona city of Sierra Vista, where the Monument fire had already forced nearly 7,000 people to flee 2,600 homes. At least 44 homes have been lost.

Winds reaching 50 mph pushed flames down a mountain and into a heavily populated area Sunday. Fire crews were forced to abandon their lines and try to set up in new spots as the fire advanced, fire spokesman Bill Paxton said. Residents of several areas that had been under a pre-evacuation notices were ordered to flee.

An additional 1,500 homes were evacuated Sunday afternoon, and the fire jumped a highway and was blowing into a community, Cochise County sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas said. No additional damage to homes was immediately reported.

"It's moving fast, like it was on Tuesday, just like it was on Thursday," she said. "The fire crews are doing an amazing job, trying to get in front of it."

Meanwhile, the massive Wallow fire that has been burning in eastern Arizona for three weeks kept about 200 residents of Luna, N.M., under an evacuation order for a second day.

A containment line that had held through days of high winds was breached Saturday and the fire raced toward town before shifting winds steered it around the community. It was moving to the north into an area of scattered ranches late Sunday afternoon, fire information officer Michael Puentes said.

Despite the evacuation order for Luna, about half the town's residents remained in town. They have been told to stay off the roads so they don't get in the way of fire crews, Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher said. Few people went to a Red Cross shelter set up in Reserve, N.M.

"If the fire comes back around or things change where they have to get out, we still have an egress point, so we will still escort them out of town," Fletcher said. "We're expecting high winds this afternoon -- we're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."

The Wallow fire, which is burning up much of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, is the largest of several wildfires burning in spots across the southwestern United States.

With summer rains still weeks away, forecasters said fire crews in much of Arizona and New Mexico would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that has dogged them for days.

Evacuation orders for Luna came on the same day that some other residents displaced by the fire that began May 29 were allowed to return home.

The Wallow blaze has consumed nearly 800 square miles, a little more than 511,000 acres, and more than 3,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. It is larger than a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings that had been the largest in state history. Despite its size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins. Containment rose to 44 percent Sunday.

Residents of Alpine, Ariz., were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning after being forced out for more than two weeks, but residents of the resort town of Greer still remained evacuated.

The blaze near Sierra Vista broke out June 12 and had been 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres or nearly 33 square miles early Sunday before the wind spread the flames. About 1,000 firefighters working on Father's Day had to make do without aircraft that had been grounded by winds blowing steadily at about 30 mph with gusts on the ridges of about 50 mph.

Meanwhile, a fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border outside of Raton, N.M. was 80 percent contained and evacuations had all been lifted. Fire officials said existing fire lines were holding despite strong winds in the area. The fire apparently was started June 12 by engine exhaust from an all-terrain vehicle trespassing on railroad property.

Another wildfire in Cochise County, Ariz., called Horseshoe Two was 75 percent contained after charring about 210,000 acres -- nearly 330 square miles. It has destroyed 23 structures since it started May 8.

A fire burning 9 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., had burned about 900 acres by Sunday morning and was being driven northeast into the Pecos Wilderness, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Alberta Maez said. The fire broke out Saturday and was not threatening any structures, but hikers and residents In the Santa Fe Ski Basin, Aspen Basin, Aspen Vista, and Big Tesuque were told to be ready to leave is necessary.

And in East Texas, firefighters Sunday were trying to contain a 23-square-mile blaze that had destroyed two unoccupied homes and at least four trailers. The fire, about 100 miles north of Houston, was about 40 percent contained and no evacuations were ordered, Texas Forest Service spokesman Richard Reuse said.

The fire started after a person hauling a trailer pulled off the road with a hot wheel bearing, which ignited dry grass nearby, Texas Forest Service spokesman Ralph Cullom said.

All of the Arizona wildfires are believed to be human caused. Investigators believe a campfire was the most likely cause of the Wallow fire.

Authorities in southern New Mexico were also looking for "persons of interest" as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso.

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