Much of the firefighting efforts on the fifteenth day of the Wallow Fire was focused on keeping the flames from encroaching on Luna, New Mexico, a village of about 200 people at the edge of the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest near the easternmost flank of the blaze. On the other side of the fire, 7,000 to 8,000 residents from two eastern Arizona towns evacuated last week, Springerville and Eager, were allowed to return to their homes as the Arizona wildfire firefighting authorities determined that the fire no longer posed any immediate risks to them, although the returning evacuees were warned that lingering smoke and soot in the air posed serious health risks for children and people with health problems. Additionally, some 1,900 Arizona residents from elsewhere across the fire zone remained away from their homes by evacuations, according to U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Suzanne Flory.
Fire officials in New Mexico told Reuters that an estimated 3,900 structures, homes and nonresidential buildings combined, were still under a fire threat. Currently, there are some 4,300 personnel assigned to ground crews to battle the blaze, with about half on the New Mexico side of the border, laboring to clear fire breaks around Luna and other populated areas.
As of Sunday morning the Arizona wildfire, which erupted in the White Mountains region of eastern Arizona on May 29 from what authorities still suspect was an unattended campfire, had crept to within a mile of the New Mexico border but had not yet crossed the line. The earlier reports of the wildfire entering New Mexico was a result of confusion over the controlled burns being conducted over several recent days to remove the dry brush and trees which constitute fresh fuel for the advancing flames, fire officials reported.
Stan Hinatsu, a fire information officer, was quoted Sunday morning as saying: “It’s a heads-up day for us,” explaining that the rising temperatures, combined with higher winds and falling humidity typically worsen firefighting conditions for the hard pressed firefighters.
A Red Flag warning, indicating extreme fire danger, was posted for a second straight day after two days of relatively calm winds that had allowed fire crews to finally begin to curtail the blaze. During those two calmer days, firefighters managed to carve a small perimeter of “containment” around 6 percent of the conflagration, but Forest Service officials said they had a long way to go.
The latest aerial infrared images of the fire showed it has consumed over 435,000 acres, or 680 square miles, of pine-studded forest, ranking it as the second-largest blaze on record in Arizona. The state’s biggest wildfire ever was the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona, which charred nearly 469,000 acres in 2002.
The Wallow Fire has destroyed a total of 29 homes so far, 22 of those in the town of Greer, Arizona, a small mountain retreat of about 200 dwellings, plus 35 nonresidential structures, according to the Forest Service. Health risks remain high from the soot and ash being released from the wildfire. No serious injuries have been reported to date in the Arizona wildfire called the Wallow Fire.