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High winds threaten to blow wildfires across Arizona

By Ben Smith, For CNN
June 6, 2011 -- Updated 1758 GMT (0158 HKT)

Arizona wildfire forces evacuations
  • NEW: Fire has scorched nearly 193,000 acres
  • High winds threaten progress made by firefighters
  • All of northern Arizona is under threat of wildfires because of wind, forecasters say

Read more about the fires from CNN affiliates KTVK, KPHO,KNXV and KOAT.

(CNN) -- Crews battling one of the worst wildfires in Arizona history prepared Monday to hold a 30-mile line against the advancing blaze even as accelerating winds threatened to undo their efforts, officials said.

The "Wallow Fire," as the blaze is known, has scorched 192,746 acres and has forced the evacuation of more than 2,200 people since it broke out May 29, officials said Monday morning. It is completely uncontained, officials said.

Officials ordered the immediate evacuation Sunday of residents in several eastern Arizona subdivisions and a ranch, including Escudilla Mountain Estates, Bonita, Dog Patch and the H-V Ranch.

Residents of the town of Greer, just seven miles from the wildfire's front line, remained under a pre-evacuation order Monday morning. Most chose not to wait and have already left, said Peter Frenzen, a spokesman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, which is overseeing firefighting efforts.

Forecasters said fire conditions could get much worse Monday as winds are expected to pick up as a low-pressure trough moves out of the state. The National Weather Service has projected winds of up to 30 mph in eastern Arizona. The weather service has also placed the northern half of the state under a red flag warning, which means that weather conditions are ripe for wildfires.

"It's not good," Tom Clemmons, a weather service meteorologist in Flagstaff, said of the forecast.

Officials and area residents complained of heavy smoke that has blanketed the area like fog.

"To me, it feels like I'm suffocating," Deanna Davis told CNN affiliate KTVK. "Smoke just sits in this valley and it sucks the air right out of you."

Davis, who manages Davis True Value Hardware store in Springerville, said the fire and resulting smoke had forced a run on her store from customers looking to buy masks.

Meanwhile Sunday, hundreds of firefighters took up position at the nearby mountain hamlet of Alpine to battle spot fires started by burning embers, said Brad Pitassi of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.

"The head of the fire is knocking on Alpine's door," Pitassi told CNN. "We have spot fires in Alpine. The crews have been able to stop those fires from growing."

The town of Alpine was evacuated, along with the town of Nutrioso, officials said.

Among the evacuees was Jessie Walker, who along with his wife, Holly, abandoned the house he built in Nutrioso with his own hands to escape the approaching fire, according to Phoenix-based CNN affiliate KNXV.

"What a person don't realize is is how hard it is to face something like that," Walker told KNXV. "You think you're prepared for it, you think you're mentally prepared for it, physically prepared for it. You're not."

"It's hard," Walker said, fighting back tears.

The Walkers took as many of their possessions as they could even though there wasn't enough time to pack. Those belongings are now stored in a trailer out of harm's way. Walker said he has a brother who stayed behind.

"He wants to fight for what's his and I don't blame him," Walker said.

Frenzen on Monday said the fire had destroyed two buildings in Nutrioso. Leighayn Green told KNXV she hoped her family's home wasn't one of them.

"We're thinking positive it's not ours," Green said.

Wayne Whitby, another Nutrioso resident, sounded more fatalistic.

"Whatever is going to be is going to be," Whitby told KNXV. "We hope for the best."

The fire has bedeviled fire crews with its unpredictable path, thanks to wind gusts that have carried burning embers up to three miles.

"It's a very significant fire," Pitassi said, with "a lot of growth potential."

The U.S. Forest Service said the fire is the fourth largest in Arizona's history, but Pitassi said it is the third largest.

Many evacuees were waiting out the fire in Springerville, about 20 miles from the fire's frontline, where daily meetings are held at a local high school to update residents.

Bob and Jan Bullard said they had five minutes to evacuate their home in Nutrioso when the fire made a run at the small resort town near Greer.

"I'd like to hear that we can go home," Bob Bullard told KNXV.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who was briefed Saturday by fire officials, said she would consider seeking state or federal help for the county, if the situation grew worse.

Heavy smoke generated by the fire could be seen as far away as Albuquerque, New Mexico, where city officials warned residents to avoid outdoor activities and close windows and doors.

Light ash has been reported coating the ground in several areas of the city, according to Albuquerque-based CNN affiliate KOAT.

Various fires burning in Arizona in recent days, including the Wallow Fire, have destroyed more than 270,000 acres.

Among those fires was a wildfire in southeast Arizona that had burned more than 100,000 acres, fire officials said Sunday. That fire was about 55% contained, officials said.

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