Wallow fire spreads to 389,000 acres to become second-largest fire in Arizona's history, authorities believe cause is unattended campfire

SPRINGERVILLE, Arizona , June 9, 2011 () – A forest fire in eastern Arizona that has forced thousands of people from their homes headed Wednesday for transmission lines that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people as far east as Texas.

The 607-square-mile blaze was expected to reach the power lines as early as Friday. If the lines are damaged, parts of New Mexico and Texas could face rolling blackouts.

Meanwhile, an Arizona sheriff ordered remaining residents of two towns in the path of the wildfire to evacuate by Wednesday evening. About 7,000 people live in Springerville, Eagar and surrounding areas. Many had already left.

Firefighters were concerned that high afternoon winds could carry embers that could cause new, smaller spot fires.

"We have a lot of people out there who are going to be doing nothing but looking for spots and putting those things out if they see them," fire spokesman Jim Whittington said.

Firefighters had spent the last two days trying to create a line where they could defend the two towns. They used bulldozers to scrape off vegetation and hand crews to remove other fuels. But a spot fire did find an opening, prompting the evacuations, Whittington said.

The blaze has blackened about 389,000 acres and destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. No serious injuries have been reported.

The fire prompted El Paso Electric to warn of possible power interruptions for its customers in southern New Mexico and West Texas. El Paso uses two high-voltage lines to bring electricity from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix to the two states. Losing the lines would cut off about 40% of the utility's supply.

Winds in the area were expected to gust up to 35 m.p.h. Wednesday. Officials in Catron County, N.M., told residents of Luna to be prepared to leave if winds push the blaze into western New Mexico.

The blaze, burning in mainly ponderosa pine forest, was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire. On Tuesday, it became the second-largest in Arizona's history.

It has cast smoke as far east as Iowa and forced planes to divert from Albuquerque, N.M., about 200 miles away.

Thousands of firefighters, including many from several states in the West and from as far away as New York, are helping. With a blaze as large as this being driven by unpredictable and gusty winds, putting the fire out is a gargantuan task. The cost of fighting the blaze has approached $8 million. Forest supervisor Christopher Knopp said it's likely to get more expensive.

Another major wildfire was burning Wednesday in southeastern Arizona, threatening two communities. The 166-square-mile Horseshoe Two fire has devoured three summer cabins and four outbuildings since it started May 8.


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