Wallow Fire: Crews make gains as winds die down
Thousands of residents soon may be allowed back
After 13 days of relentless fury, the Wallow Fire rested.
In the absence of blustering winds, the voracious blaze laid down on Friday, allowing firefighters to gain a foothold by setting preventive burns and cutting fire breaks in its path.
By nightfall, crews had gained 6 percent containment, an increase from just zero percent two days earlier, said Kelly Wood, a spokesman for the fire command.
The amount of pine forest and meadowland consumed by the second-largest fire in Arizona history grew to 408,887 acres Friday from about 386,000 on Thursday.
But no additional homes or buildings were lost. At least 50 have been destroyed so far. And no injuries were reported.
Jim Whittington, spokesman for the Southwest fire-management team, said: "We had a really good day today. We are feeling really good about the east flank of Greer. That's going to be a critical piece we are going to be watching tomorrow."
Conditions are expected to be more difficult today, and Whittington said "we are very concerned about the winds," which could be 25-35 mph, with gusts even higher on the ridges.
But perhaps more importantly for thousands of evacuees, there was talk that at least some residents may be able to return to their homes in Eagar, Greer and Springerville.
Chief Deputy Brannon Eagar of the Apache County Sheriff's Office said poor air quality and back-burn operations could delay the lifting of evacuation orders until Monday.
Officials said they may still need three to five days of mop-up around Alpine and Nutrioso, but residents should be able to return after that.
For Ross Ashcroft, 77, and other longtime residents of the White Mountains, the good news was offset by fear of what they might find - a forest of ash and charcoal.
Ashcroft wondered whether he'd again see the colorful fall foliage of Escudilla Mountain or marvel at the view from his Eagar home.
"That's kind of why we hate to go back and look at it," he said. "Imagine going back and seeing it all black."
Instead of flames roaring down mountain slopes and mushroom clouds of smoke overhead, the prevailing image Friday was a gray pall covering hundreds of square miles as the fire mostly stayed at ground level.
That was posing a new problem. Mark Schaffer, director of communications for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said because the fire had dropped down low and the winds subsided, smoke had become "very hazardous."
"We've got a serious potential health problem on our hands" in the Springerville-Eagar area, he said. Fine dust particulates are way above national safety standards of 30 milligrams per cubic meter, with overnight readings at 1,200 mpcm.
Whittington said the smoke affects firefighters to a great extent. "We are dealing with the hand that was dealt by Mother Nature. We've got to get out and stop this fire. And that means we are going to have to suck some smoke to get it done," he said.
Command officials emphasized that nobody is out of the woods when it comes to the Wallow Fire's remaining threat: stiff winds of up to 25 mph that have been driving the flames all week are expected to kick up again this afternoon.
But Friday's calm, with breezes up to 15 mph, allowed a team of thousands of firefighters and support staff to get some rest and to launch an offensive from the air and on the ground.
Wood said numerous backfires were set by hotshot crews south of the high country towns.
Logistically the firefighting operation is a marvel: 211 engines, 17 bulldozers, 16 water tankers, 14 helicopters, 3,137 people and one DC-10 air tanker dropping fire retardant.
Standing on a cliff overlooking the Little Colorado River near Greer, R.J. Estes of the Southwest Incident Management Team pointed to at least three smoke plumes where crews had ignited the forest between homes and the approaching blaze, literally fighting fire with fire.
The relative calm was a bit of hope for residents at Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop-Lakeside as they waited for word on the fate of their homes and the surrounding forest. About 50 stayed at the shelter Thursday night.
Lynn Livingston, a retired high school teacher from Springerville, has been sleeping in her car outside the shelter with her Rottweiler, Molly, since Tuesday. Pets aren't allowed in the shelter and Molly has seizures, so she can't be boarded.
"All I want to know is when can we go home," Livingston said. "I don't know what we're going to find when we drive up to our gates. It's almost scarier than packing up and coming here."
Friday's reprieve also gave firefighters a chance to talk about the devastation of the Wallow Fire and the huge effort to stop it.
Michael Umphrey, a medic with a 20-man crew out of Ronan, Mont., said he spent six nights patrolling burnout operations and was stunned that the blaze remained active even at 2 a.m. "I've never seen a fire burn up so much timber before," Umphrey said. "That's what struck me."
Pierre Malatare, with the same crew out of Montana, said the fire moved so fast that maps showing its boundaries quickly became useless.
"The scariest part, at least for us, is working around houses," Malatare said. "At night, you don't know what all your hazards are. You get a lot of downed wires. One particular house we were by up near Nutrioso had a lot of warning signs about bear traps. It was slow going through there, but no one stepped in one."
Malatare said that, while flames licked right up to one man's porch, firefighters were able to save the home.
"It feels real good just to be able to help out," he added.
Republic reporter D.S. Woodfill contributed to this article.
My parents evacuated a week ago to stay with my sister in Gilbert, AZ. They will probably returning tomorrow.
I feel that we are just beginning to see our new reality as it stands today. Mr. Finn was telling me how the earthquake in Japan over a month ago changed the earth axis. I heard that it has been moving for a while and the earthquake really did some work on it. It means a whole lot of "new" for all of us. It seems to go along with the prophecy of "... know not what season it is..." or something like that. I think they are supposed to change and I have definitely seen the evidence of that.
As Mr. Finn always says, "Time will tell".