Thousands ordered out of town as fire nears

Vincent Chavez, left, and his father, Cody, gather their belongings Tuesday as they prepare to evacuate their home in Springerville, Ariz. Firefighters spent the day working feverishly to prepare a defense for Springerville and nearby Eagar as a raging forest fire approached.

Vincent Chavez, left, and his father, Cody, gather their belongings Tuesday as they prepare to evacuate their home in Springerville, Ariz. Firefighters spent the day working feverishly to prepare a defense for Springerville and nearby Eagar as a raging forest fire approached. Photo by The Associated Press.

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — Authorities have ordered about 2,000 residents of the eastern Arizona town of Eagar to evacuate as a raging forest fire approaches.

The order came late Tuesday afternoon after a day in which residents prepared to leave. Firefighters spent the day working feverishly to prepare a defense for Eagar and neighboring Springerville.

The Apache County Sheriff’s Office issued the order for areas south of Highway 260 and east of Greer. The highway will be closed after the evacuation is complete.

Eagar has about 4,000 residents and the nearby town of Springerville has another 2,000. In all, about 7,000 people were ordered to prepare for evacuation in recent days.

The ferocious wildfire that has driven thousands from their homes in eastern Arizona grew to 486 square miles Tuesday and set its sights on the biggest target yet — two of the most populous towns in the fire-scarred mountains.

The blaze, now the second-largest in state history, began more than a week ago, casting smoke as far east as Iowa and forcing some planes to divert from Albuquerque, N.M., some 200 miles away.

The fire has grown most on the north side, as winds whipped flames through ponderosa pine in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, fire incident command spokeswoman Dellora Guager said.

Winds whipping the fire Monday drove the last holdouts from the small resort town of Greer. At daylight Tuesday, Greer, Alpine and the other tiny resort towns near the New Mexico border were still standing.

No serious injuries have been reported, but the fire has destroyed five buildings.

The future of the towns remained in doubt, as fierce winds were forecast to return later Tuesday. Authorities warned the 5,000 residents of Springerville that they may have to join about 2,700 others who have already fled.

The towns are adjacent to the forest in an area called Round Valley.

In preparation for the oncoming flames, firefighting crews are using bulldozers to scrape away vegetation and trees to create, for example, a space between the fire and a home, authorities said.

Crews are also clearing out other combustible sources — such as brush and trees — from outside homes near the forest. Firefighters have also been assigned to protect structures in the towns, fire spokesman Steve Miller said.

“The worst-case scenario is we’re going to order an evacuation and the fire is going to burn up to the homes here. Or to wherever we stand and defend, hopefully not further than that,” Miller said.

Like others in the community on the edge of the national forest, pastor Mike Taylor thanked firefighters, posting a message to firefighters outside the First Southern Baptist Church in Springerville.

He wanted them to know that his parishioners are praying for them.

Taylor said he was ready to evacuate if necessary but was not worried. He said he spent the past week praying. “For me, life is more important,” Taylor said. “Things can be replaced. We just have to trust God is in control.”

The blaze has consumed 311,481 acres since it started May 29. It was aided by wind gusts of more than 60 mph. Fire officials said the blaze died down a bit overnight and crews planned to work on its northeast side Tuesday.

New mapping showed that some fire breaks have held but the wildfire was considered zero percent contained. A giant smoke plume that lingered over Springerville a day ago had dissipated Tuesday morning, leaving behind haze.

The wind, forecast at 35 mph, remained a concern, said fire information officer Kelly Wood.

“It’s going to kick up,” he said.

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