SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) - A massive wildfire in eastern Arizona that has claimed more than 30 homes and forced nearly than 10,000 people to evacuate is likely to spread into New Mexico soon, threatening more towns and possibly endangering two major power lines that bring electricity from Arizona to West Texas.
The fire has now burned 639 square miles of forest, an increase of 114 square miles from a day earlier, officials said Friday.
Lighters winds Thursday and Friday have helped the 3,000 firefighters on the lines make progress, but critical fire conditions remain, said Jim Whittington, a spokesman for the teams battling the fire. High winds are expected to return with a vengeance on Saturday.
"We have until then to get as much work as we can done and get to the point where we can sit back and watch the winds come and do what we have to then," Whittington said.
Fire crews plan to try to strengthen what lines they've been able to establish and continue burning out forested areas in front of the main fire to try to stop its advance. It was officially just 5 percent contained Friday, but the actual numbers are likely higher, Whittington said.
The advances came on the north side of the fire, near two large towns at the edge of the forest that have been evacuated.
The two Arizona-Texas power lines are still in the path of the fire, although Whittington said he was less concerned about them Friday. El Paso Electric has warned its 372,000 customers that they may face rolling blackouts if the lines are cut.
The blaze in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has destroyed 31 homes or cabins, including 22 in the picturesque mountain community of Greer, Whittington said. Two dozen outbuildings and a truck were also lost and five homes damaged in Greer when the fire moved in Wednesday night.
A DC-10 tanker made three retardant drops near the community Thursday, and officials hope that by Saturday the threat will be much less.
Nearly 10,000 people have been evacuated from the towns of Springerville and Eager on the edge of the forest and several mountain communities in the forest itself.
"I can't even speculate on when we can let people back in, but I can tell you we're not going to let people back in until we can be sure they will be safe and don't have to leave again," Whittington said.
Much of the growth toward New Mexico has actually been from fires started by firefighters trying to burn out fuels ahead of the blaze so it can be stopped, Whittington said. That technique allows the fires to be controlled and less hot. But there is little doubt it will cross the border, he said.
"This fire is eventually going to get there, so we want something to check it when it does," he said.
The fire doesn't appear to have moved into New Mexico yet, said Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher. He said fire crews were cutting down trees and burning fuels along U.S. 180 near the Arizona border.
"I'm not sure when we're going to get to the point of it actually getting here," he said at midday Friday. Residents of about 100 homes in a small subdivision near the border were still being kept away Friday, and about 200 residents of Luna were prepared to evacuate.
Both Luna and the county seat of Reserve were being powered by a large generator because of worries that electricity to the area would be cut, Fletcher said.
Authorities suspect the 408,876-acre fire was sparked by a campfire. It is the second-largest wildfire in state history.
An extremely dry late winter and spring contributed to the fire conditions, drying out the forest and allowing fierce winds to carry the flames into the treetops, where they spread by miles each day.
Many in Arizona blame the legal battles that have erupted over old-growth logging that threatened endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl. Since those disputes prevented regular logging that would have thinned the number of trees, the forests became overgrown, they say.Environmentalists insist that theory is just a scare tactic.
"That's just wrong, flat-out wrong," said Bryan Bird of Wildearth Guardians, which has been involved in some of the lawsuits. "These people are misinformed or they're intentionally trying to scare people in a time that they're already terrified. It's pure politics."
Experts such as professor Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University, who has studied Western forests for decades, say the problems have been building for decades, and blaming lawsuits ignores those facts. Nearly half a million square miles of ponderosa and conifer forests are at risk across the West, he said.
Historically, those forests were relatively thin, with grass and wildflowers growing beneath the canopy. Every two to 10 years, a fire would move through and burn out the undergrowth and small trees.
As the region was settled in the 1880s, cattle were brought in to feast on the grass, which limited fires and let small trees mature. Early foresters liked that, because they wanted the forest fully stocked with trees. And they began putting out fires early in the 1900s to help the trees grow, Covington said.
As the forest got thicker, fires got harder to fight, and the U.S. Forest Service hired thousands of men to battle the flames. Small fires that reached into the treetops were first seen in Arizona in the 1940s. Over the following decades, the typical treetop fire went from a few acres to a few thousand to more than 10,000 by the 1990s.
Then early in the 2000s, huge conflagrations emerged that turned hundreds of thousands of acres to ash.
"Now, we're firmly in the multiple 100,000-acre landscape fire,' Covington said.
Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, says environmental lawsuits have put the nation's forests at risk. And in places where the Apache-Sitgreaves forest had been thinned, he said, crews were better able to control the fire.
"So it does work," said Kyl, who has a cabin in Greer. "And we haven't been able to do as much of it as we would like."
The Forest Service has acknowledged the problem, setting up nine restoration projects across the West designed to let private industry thin small trees. In Arizona, the Four Forests Initiative is expected to help clear about 50 square miles a year and use the discarded brush for construction material. But the plan isn't off the ground yet, angering some, including Allen.
When the plan does start, it will build on projects already under way in the state's White Mountains, where similar efforts are credited with saving some communities from the current fire.
Thursday marked the first day that firefighters had favorable weather conditions, Whittington said. Friday was expected to be another mild day, and crews were ready to make the most of it before the return of gusty winds Saturday afternoon.
"There's still a lot of fire out there and it's going to move around," he said.Crews were already working on fire lines across the border in western New Mexico. The flames had yet to reach that state by early Friday, but residents of the small town of Luna were preparing to evacuate.
---Christie reported from Phoenix.