Wallow Fire now 2nd Most Catastrophic in Arizona History
Tucson, AZ — With smoke stretching 1,000 miles away, the Wallow fire on the eastern Arizona and New Mexico border continued to break records on Tuesday, June 7, 2011. In just nine days, the fire grew to over 311,481 acres, making it the second most catastrophic wildfire in Arizona’s history, according to the latest Incident Management Team report.
The state’s worst wildfire was the 468,638-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002, which forced evacuations from communities just 37 miles northwest of the area where current evacuations taking place for the Wallow fire.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a Declaration of Emergency Monday afternoon, releasing $200,000 from the Governor’s Emergency Funds to cover emergency response and recovery expenses for damage resulting from the Wallow fire. The declaration also authorizes the mobilization of the Arizona National Guard if needed to protect life and property, as well as the activation of the State Emergency Operations Center.
With that rapid expansion in only nine days, the Wallow fire surpassed the June 2005 Cave Creek fire’s 248,310-acre rampage which was considered the second largest in Arizona history, according to statistics from the Southwest Coordination Center.
Since it started Sunday May 29, 2011, the Wallow fire has continued to burn completely uncontained, despite the efforts of the 2,500 firefighters who are currently on the scene. Those firefighting efforts include crews from around the country, as well as 22 helicopters, 12 bulldozers, 138 engines and 31 water tenders, according to the Incident Management Team.
There are now three separate fire incident teams fighting the fire, which is now considered the number one priority nationwide.
Weather Not Cooperating
A “Red Flag” warning continues to be in effect due to the critical fire weather conditions created by strong winds and low relative humidity, according to the National Weather Service office in Flagstaff.
High winds on Monday caused embers to jump over the U.S. Highway 191, resulting in a spike in fire activity around Alpine and Nutrioso, as well as up the 10,912-foot slope of Escudilla Mountain and into western New Mexico. The winds also sent the fire northeast across Highway 180 toward Luna, New Mexico, according to the Incident Management Team.
Those winds are expected to continue to blow from the southwest at 20 to 25 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph and a relative humidity hovering around 10 percent.
The billowing smoke rising 35,000 feet has blown past New Mexico and Colorado, moving into Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and reportedly as far as South Dakota.
The Wallow fire had already burned at least six vacation cabins at Beaver Creek Guest Ranch and forced evacuations of about 3,000 residents from the communities of Alpine and Nutrioso, as well as subdivisions along Hwy 180 and 191. Resident’s along the Blue River in Greenlee County have also been evacuated, according to fire officials.
At least one structure was confirmed burned around Nutrioso, but the fire area remained too hot to enter, according to fire officials who indicated at a Monday evening public meeting they were unable to say exactly how fast the fire is moving or exactly how many homes had already been lost in Alpine and Nutrioso.
The Wallow fire continued to move northeast through the Apache National Forest toward the historic buildings and seasonal homes in Greer, as well as the nearly 7,000 residents of the communities of Eagar and Springerville.
Greer, Sunrise and the surrounding villages were on a pre-evacuation alert over the weekend when the fire came within 6 miles of the resort area. At the time the trigger point for the evacuation was two miles, according to the Incident Management Team. The Catron County Sheriff’s Office also issued a pre-evacuation notice to the residents of Luna, New Mexico, and the surrounding areas just over the Arizona state line from Alpine.
Then at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, the call came from the Apache County Sheriff’s Department to evacuate the communities of Greer and Sunrise.
The communities of Springerville and Eagar were also placed on a pre-evacuation alert by the Sheriff’s office. That evacuation is expected to happen within the 24 next hours.
National Forest Previously Burned
The Apache National Forest is part of the jointly administered, 2-million acre Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests that ranges in elevation from 3,500 feet to nearly 11,500 feet. The area is often referred to as the White Mountains.
This is also near the location of Arizona’s worst wildfire to date. The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire raged through the Sitgreaves National Forest, destroying nearly 500 homes and forcing the evacuation of 30,000 people including the communities of Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside, just 37 miles to the northwest of Greer.
The human-caused Rodeo-Chediski fire burned 468,638 acres in the Sitgreaves National Forest, including much of the valuable ponderosa pine forest harvested by the Fort Apache Timber Company. That wildfire caused over $300 million in damage.
In an online poll taken by the Show Low-based White Mountain Independent, 92% of those responding said they were “concerned the Wallow fire may be a repeat” of the Rodeo-Chediski fire.