Thousands flee wind-whipped Arizona wildfires

Robert Joseph, 64, rides his ATV as smoke plumes from the Wallow fire fill the sky in Luna, N.M., June 6, 2011.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Updated at 6:54 a.m. Eastern

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

Winds of about 30 mph, with gusts above 60 mph, blew heavy smoke from the fire in the picturesque town of Greer, where most of the 200 fulltime residents had already fled. Everyone still there and in nearby area known as Sunrise were ordered to leave Monday afternoon.

Pictures: Arizona wildfires

"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.

"We're numb — our entire family and our friends are just numb," he said.

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Late Monday, 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.

The fire was estimated at about 360 square miles, officials said Monday night. Officials believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze more than a week ago.

"Tomorrow it's supposed to pick back up, all the way through Thursday," U.S. Forest Service incident commander Joe Reinarz tells CBS News affiliate KPHO. "We got about three, four days ahead of us." KPHO reporter Donna Rossi reports that fire officials, while bracing for another day of high winds and smoke, are now projecting that this fire could last well into the last weeks of June.

Several hundred people turned out for a community meeting Monday night at which fire officials urged residents to be ready to evacuate if the fire continues to grow. They vowed to give residents of Eager and Springerville as much notice as possible of an evacuation.

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 Monday.

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, Gov. 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.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed an emergency declaration Monday that will allow the use of $200,000 in emergency funds and authorizes the mobilization of the National Guard if it becomes necessary.

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.

Fredin said the smoke wouldn't be noticeable in the Midwest, where humidity already makes conditions hazy. He said it could, however, produce striking orange-pink sunrises and sunsets.

In eastern Colorado, the haze obscured the view of the mountains from downtown Denver and prompted some municipal health departments to issue air quality warnings.

Heavy smoke had also blanketed Gallup, New Mexico. By Monday evening, smoke was filling the valley surrounding Albuquerque.

In Arizona, the fire and heavy smoke created pea-soup visibility, forcing the closure of several roads.

The fire is the state's third-largest, behind a 2002 blaze that blackened more than 732 square miles and destroyed 491 homes and a fire in 2005 that burned about 387 square miles in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek.

Another major wildfire, the state's fifth-largest, burned in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities.

The 156-square-mile blaze devoured two summer cabins and four outbuildings in recent days but weren't reported earlier because crews couldn't reach them, fire management spokeswoman Karen Ripley said.