Crews try to protect Ariz. communities from fires

Crews on Saturday worked to protect several small communities from two of the largest wildfires ever in Arizona by clearing away brush near homes and setting fires that robbed the blazes of their fuel.

Gov. Jan Brewer called the 144,000-acre Wallow Fire, near the White Mountain community of Alpine, "absolutely frightening."

The fire, the third largest in state history, has burned across 225 square miles of brush and timber; its smoke is visible well into New Mexico and parts of southern Colorado.

"It was unbelievable — the expansion of the smoke," Brewer said after an aerial tour of the blaze and a briefing from fire team's commander in Springerville.

"It was horrific and of the likes of a fire of which I have never experienced from the air," she told reporters. "We hope that we get more encouraging news in the morning."

Fire officials said they had zero containment of the fire near the New Mexico-Arizona state line, which has forced an unknown number of people to evacuate.

Crews have struggled to protect property and just four summer rental cabins have burned since it started May 29, the U.S. Forest Service said. There have been no serious injuries.

The fire reached Alpine's outskirts and was about two miles away from homes in Nutrioso, said Bob Dyson, a spokesman for the team fighting the blaze.

A shift in winds around midafternoon blew embers that started a spot fire at the southwestern corner of Alpine. A helicopter knocked down that fire by dumping water on it, and no buildings were damaged or destroyed as a result.

The yellowish smoke in Alpine was so heavy that it reduced visibility to about a quarter mile.

Many residents of the nearby mountain vacation town of Greer voluntarily evacuated on Saturday, said Brad Pitassi, spokesman for the area fire management team.

Authorities had earlier warned that they might have to leave but have not issued such an order. The town has less than 200 permanent residents but attracts many vacationers.

In terms of size, the Wallow Fire ranks behind Arizona's 469,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 and the 248,000-acre Cave Creek complex fire in 2005.

Pitassi said 1,300 firefighters are fighting the blaze, including some from other states.

"We're tapping into resources across the nation, from Oregon all the way to New York," he said.

Meanwhile, crews were protecting a church camp and two communities from the Horseshoe Two fire that had burned 140 square miles in far southern Arizona. It's the fifth-largest fire in state history.

The 90,200-acre blaze reached the evacuated Methodist church camp in the steep Pine Canyon near the community of Paradise on Friday night.

Helicopters dumped water and retardant on a hotspot near the camp.

"Crews were successful in saving the camp," fire officials said in a statement.

Fire teams also were focusing on protecting the evacuated communities of Paradise and East Whitetail Canyon.

Paradise fared well as crews set fires that burned natural forest fuels and kept the blaze from about a dozen occupied homes and many other vacation residences.

"The fire passed through ... we prevented it from reaching any structures," Steven Berube, spokesman for the fire incident management team, told The Associated Press late Friday.

He said crews were doing the same thing around East Whitetail Canyon where "the blaze will almost certainly be reaching."

The fire, which is 55 percent contained, was drawing near to the eight to 10 homes there.

The nearby Chiricahua National Monument was closed as a precaution.

The Horseshoe Two fire has been burning since May 8 and about 800 firefighters were battling it.