Winds challenge crews battling AZ, NM wildfires

Thousands more people evacuated their homes in southern Arizona Sunday as crews battling a wildfire faced extremely high winds that drove flames across roads and containment lines and toward populated areas.

The Monument fire was one of several raging in the Arizona and New Mexico where forecasters say fire crews would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that has dogged them for days.

About 3,000 people from 1,700 homes were evacuated south of the city of Sierra Vista where the blaze has been burning for a week but picked up speed Sunday as winds gusted up to 60 mph, Cochise County sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas said late Sunday night.

The flames raced down a mountain and into a heavily populated area, forcing crews to abandon their lines and set up in new spots.

"Winds pushed fire across Highway 92, making run so fast and so hot that the danger to citizens in the path was significant," she told The Associated Press. "The fire crews are doing an amazing job, trying to get in front of it."

Sunday's evacuations brought the total number to about 10,000 people from 4,300 homes forced to flee the flames, she said.

Some residences were destroyed Sunday, adding to the 44 already reported, but fire officials still don't have an exact number, Capas said. There have been no serious injuries.

Winds had diminished by late Sunday and were projected to reach just 10 mph Monday.

"It that prediction holds, it will be a big benefit for firefighters," she said.

Before the winds spread the flames earlier in the day, the blaze was reported 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres or nearly 33 square miles.

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.

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, while residents of the resort town of Greer will be allowed to return home late Monday morning.

A new wildfire ignited Sunday in northcentral Arizona that officials said could threaten powerlines running to Phoenix as well as some scattered ranches in coming days.

Eric Nietel, spokesman for the Show Low fire department, said late Sunday night that the blaze, about 40 miles northeast of Payson, had burned about 500 acres.

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.