(Photo: Reuters / Jim Urquhart)
The semi-good news is that the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona is officially six percent contained (the number is likely higher) as of Friday night. But the bad news is that the massive wildfire is “very, very close” to spreading to another state: New Mexico.
Jim Whittington, an officer with the Southwest Incident Command Center, reported Friday night that firefighters have been able to contain the Wallow Fire – the second largest wildfire in the state’s history – to just 6 percent. Earlier on Friday, Whittington reported that the fire was 5 percent contained, meaning officially there was only one percent progress.
The over 3,100 firefighters are under intense time pressure to contain the fire on Friday before stronger winds of up to 30 mph pick up around noon Saturday.
Since the Wallow Fire began on May 29, containment efforts have been frustrated due to strong winds of up to 35 mph that threw flames up to 3 miles away and started new fires. Winds calmed down on Friday, allowing firefighters to report for the first time since the Wallow Fire began that they made some progress in containing it.
With stronger winds expected Saturday, the wildfire is on course to spread into New Mexico today.
“It’s getting very, very close to the New Mexico state line,” said Whittington on Friday, according to The Associated Press. “This is really rugged country. There is a lot of potential” for the wildfire to grow.
The Wallow Fire is still threatening to make impact with two main power lines of El Paso Electric. The two lines supply 40 percent of the power supply for El Paso Electric, which serves 372,000 customers in West Texas and southern New Mexico. The company’s customers might experience blackouts if the lines are cut. But Whittington said Friday he is less worried about that possibility occurring.
So far, nearly 10,000 people in two towns – Springerville and Eagar – and mountain communities in eastern Arizona were ordered to evacuate. But the massive fire only destroyed about 30 homes and about two dozen buildings.
There was talk that some residents may be allowed to return to their homes in Eagar, Greer and Springerville soon. But poor air quality, due to heavy ash and smoke, might delay the lifting of the evacuation orders until Monday.
“We’ve got a serious potential health problem on our hands,” said Mark Schaffer of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, according to The Arizona Republic.
The Wallow Fire – named after Bear Wallow Wilderness, near where the fire is thought to have started – has burned 408, 887 acres as of Friday night, up from 386,000 on Thursday. So far, no injuries were reported.
Arizona’s largest fire is the Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002, which was actually two fires that merged into one. The Rodeo-Chediski fire destroyed 491 buildings and burned 467,000 acres.