2 Arizona towns to empty as wildfire approaches

Posted June 08, 2011, at 9:52 p.m.

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — A raging forest fire in eastern Arizona that already forced thousands from their homes headed Wednesday for a pair of transmission lines that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people as far east as Texas.

The 607-square-mile blaze is expected to reach the power lines as early as Friday. If the lines are damaged, parts of New Mexico and Texas could face rolling blackouts.

Meanwhile, an Arizona sheriff ordered remaining residents of two towns in the path of the wildfire to evacuate by Wednesday evening. About 7,000 people live in Springerville and Eagar and surrounding areas, although many already have left.

The blaze has blackened about 389,000 acres and destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. No serious injuries have been reported.

Firefighters have been concerned that high afternoon winds could carry embers that can cause new, smaller spot fires.

“We have a lot of people out there who are going to be doing nothing but looking for spots and putting those things out if they see them,” fire spokesman Jim Whittington said.

Firefighters had spent the past two days trying to create a line where they could defend the towns. They used bulldozers to scrape off vegetation and hand crews to remove other fuels. The line hasn’t been breached, but a spot fire did find an opening, Whittington said.

By late Wednesday afternoon, the streets of Springerville were mostly empty. Apache County sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officers could be seen going house-to-house as they looked for any remaining residents. Authorities were marking homes with yellow caution tape to signify that residents had left.

The fire prompted Texas-based El Paso Electric to issue warnings of possible power interruptions for its customers in southern New Mexico and West Texas.

The company uses two high voltage lines to bring electricity from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix to the two states. Losing the lines would cut off about 40 percent of the utility’s supply, possibly triggering the rolling blackouts among its 372,000 customers.

The blaze, burning in mainly ponderosa pine forest, was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire. It became the second-largest in Arizona history on Tuesday.

It has cast smoke as far east as Iowa and forced some planes to divert from Albuquerque, N.M., some 200 miles away.

Firefighters were also trying to protect the mountain towns of Alpine, Greer and Nutrioso. They were able to keep it out of the canyons surrounding the small resort town of Greer on Tuesday.

Thousands of firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, are already helping.

 

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