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Thousands flee wild Arizona blaze

Associated Press / June 7, 2011

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SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — Stiff winds whipped up a gigantic blaze in the mountains of eastern Arizona yesterday, forcing the evacuation of a third resort town and casting a smoky haze over states as far away as Iowa.

Winds of about 30 miles per hour, with gusts above 60, blew heavy smoke from the fire into Greer, a picturesque town where most of the 200 full-time residents had already fled. Everyone still there and in the nearby area known as Sunrise were ordered to leave yesterday afternoon.

“It’s heartbreaking,’’ Allan Johnson, owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge in Greer, the oldest in the state, said of the fire barreling down on the resort town. He was pessimistic about the chances of saving the lodge and the hundreds of vacation homes in the area.

“Our entire family and our friends are just numb,’’ he said.

Last evening, a huge pall of black smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eager and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people, and sheriff’s officials told residents there to prepare to leave.

The winds and expected lightning are making matters worse in an area dotted with cabins and campgrounds that have long provided a cool summer getaway from the oppressive heat of the nearby desert.

Officials believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze more than a week ago.

So far, the flames have destroyed five buildings and scorched nearly 230,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest. No serious injuries have been reported. The blaze nearly doubled in size between Saturday and yesterday, and now covers an area of 365 square miles.

About 2,700 to 3,000 people are believed to have fled Alpine and Nutrioso late last week and headed to larger towns for shelter, Governor Jan Brewer said.

Roughly 2,500 firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, are working to contain the wildfires, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.

A ridge of high pressure was carrying the haze to central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver. The smoke was visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Heavy smoke is visible at least 200 miles to the northeast, in Gallup, N.M. By last evening, smoke was filling the valley surrounding Albuquerque.

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