PHOENIX – Fire crews are making major strides in corralling three major wildfires that have been burning in Arizona for weeks, and they expect to have one of the fires fully contained by this weekend.
The 348-square-mile fire that will be the first contained has burned through almost an entire forest atop southeastern Arizona's Chiricahua mountains. The forest supports a huge diversity of plants and animals and is a world-renowned bird watching area.
The fire was tamed because it basically had burned across the whole mountain range, said Mary Christensen, a spokeswoman for the team that has battled the huge blaze since it broke out May 8. The Chiricahua is one of the state's so-called "sky island" mountain ranges, which rise from the surrounding desert and grasslands and aren't connected to other ranges. It is part of the Coronado National Forest.
The fire destroyed nine homes and 14 other buildings as it churned through juniper, oak, pine and other fuels.
It burned very hot in some places, scarring the landscape, but in others scorched only the undergrowth, Christensen said. The prime bird-watching area known as Cave Creek Canyon, which is home to species from as far south as Chile during the breeding season, was not severely damaged.
"For the most part, the fire was kept to a low enough intensity that the canopy is still there," Christensen said Wednesday. "And we believe that it probably will recover quite easily, and quickly, probably after the rains this season."
The fire originally was expected to be fully contained by Wednesday evening, but officials said rising temperatures in the forecast created potential for spot fires. Expected full containment was now pushed back to Saturday evening.
The thousands of firefighters battling the state's other two major blazes also were making progress, with containment of state's largest-ever fire at 61 percent.
About 10,000 people were evacuated at one time in the battle against the largest fire, which began May 29 and has burned 828 square miles in eastern Arizona. All but a handful are back home, and the small town of Luna, N.M., was reopened Wednesday.
The blaze churned through forest along the New Mexico border, especially on the fire's rugged south and southeast sides.
Meanwhile, a fire in the Huachuca Mountains in southern Arizona has been burning since June 12. It has consumed 44 square miles and 57 homes on the outskirts of Sierra Vista, Ariz., about 15 miles north of the Mexican border. The fire is 59 percent contained.
Heavy winds on Sunday pushed the fire across a state highway and into neighborhoods, and nearly 10,000 residents were evacuated at one point. Most have now gone home, with residents of 2,600 homes given the OK to return Wednesday after overnight controlled burning went well and cut the risk. More burnout operations are expected later Wednesday.
Fire officials stopped short of saying they have turned the corner.
Instead, they say they are no longer on the defensive in fighting fires from house to house. They are now focusing on building protection lines in a bid to contain the fire.
"The way I would characterize it is that the momentum is beginning to swing in our direction," said Steve Frye, deputy incident commander for the team fighting the fire. "And we are able to take an offensive rather than a defensive strategy."
Billeaud reported from Sierra Vista.