SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — A single campfire likely sparked what is now the largest blaze in Arizona history, and authorities said Wednesday they’ve questioned two “persons of interest” as the massive wildfire and two others threaten separate corners of New Mexico.
However, investigators declined to call the two people questioned in the Wallow fire suspects or speculate on whether they’ll face charges or be found liable to pay restitution.
In neighboring New Mexico, the tourism secretary said the state had been hoping for a modest rebound in tourism this summer. But with fires burning near three of its four borders, she’s trying to stay optimistic and reassure people that New Mexico is open for business.
The fire burning in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest continued its cross-border threat to Luna, N.M., on Wednesday as it grew to 478,452 acres of forest, or nearly 750 square miles, fire command team spokesman Alan Barbain said.
Of that, 4,911 acres were in New Mexico and 473,541 in Arizona, making it the largest fire in Arizona history, although nowhere near the most damaging to homes.
The blaze has forced nearly 10,000 people to evacuate in several small mountain communities and two larger towns on the forest’s edge. It has burned 32 homes and four rental cabins
Arizona’s largest fire previously was the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings.
About 2,700 people who live in several Arizona resort communities in the forest remained evacuated. Residents of Nutrioso began trickling home midmorning Wednesday, and fire officials said evacuation orders for the picturesque hamlets of Alpine and Greer might be lifted in several days.
Greer, considered the jewel of eastern Arizona’s summer havens, lost more than 20 homes and a couple dozen outbuildings as flames moved into the valley last week.
Forest supervisor Chris Knopp said a campfire in the Bear Wallow wilderness was the Wallow fire’s “most likely cause.” He confirmed investigators had questioned two people but declined to say any more about the investigation.
When forest officials were first called to the fire May 29, he said they spotted a fire near a campfire. They also saw a separate fire about three miles away, but they were unsure if it had been sparked by the campfire, he said.
“I just hope they identify the people responsible for this,” Knopp said.
Asked why no fire restrictions were in place before the blaze, Knopp pulled out a picture of Springerville on May 19, after 6 inches of snow had fallen.
“It seems pretty foolish for the forest to implement fire restrictions when there was just snow on the ground,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I would probably do the same thing. If I had known a fire would start, I would do it differently.”
Though the Wallow fire’s acreage grew, firefighters were holding the line on its north, south and west sides.
Just across the state line to the east, evacuation plans remained in place for the roughly 200 residents of Luna, N.M. Crews have been working to protect the town for days, hacking down brush, using chain saws to cut trees and setting small fires to burn anything that approaching flames could use as fuel.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, firefighters were hoping lighter winds on Wednesday would help them get a handle on growing fires near Raton and Carlsbad before more high winds and searing temperatures moved into the state Thursday.
New Mexico tourism officials were keeping a close eye on the fire danger heading into the Fourth of July holiday.
Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson said much of the department’s focus for building tourism has been on keeping New Mexicans in New Mexico. She says the department now is also trying to be proactive to keep travelers from being scared off by the fires.
Carlsbad tourism officials said summer visitors remain steady, despite the fact that the nearby Carlsbad Caverns park has been closed by fire this week.
Cathy Connelly with the town of Taos said tourism there is up 9 percent and they haven’t seen any fire-related cancellations headed into the Fourth of July.
Fires have devoured hundreds of square miles in the drought-stricken Southwest and Texas since wildfire season began several weeks ago. And the outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, calls for fire potential to be above normal in those areas through September, but normal or less than normal across the rest of the West.