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Arizona wildfire forces more people from their homes

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Wildfire evacuees look for answers
  • NEW: Officials order the immediate evacuation of several subdivisions
  • NEW: Strong winds complicate efforts to put out the fire
  • The blaze in eastern Arizona has destroyed at least 144,000 acres so far
  • Firefighters had some success overnight, an official says

(CNN) -- Officials ordered the immediate evacuation Sunday of residents in several eastern Arizona subdivisions as crews continued to battle one of the state's largest-ever wildfires.

It was not immediately clear how many people were affected by the latest orders, which were issued for Escudilla Mountain Estates, Bonita, Dog Patch and the H-V Ranch.

Strong winds kicked up embers Sunday and blew them across the fire line, said Peter Frenzen, a fire official, prompting the evacuations.

"What happened today with the spotting across the highway is exactly the sort of thing we're worried about," he said. "We remain quite concerned and we're doing everything we can."

Arizona wildfire still uncontained
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  • Arizona

Earlier, hundreds of people in a resort town and its neighboring communities were told to pack their belongings and be ready to leave. The wildfire, dubbed the Wallow Fire, has forced at least 2,200 people from their homes so far.

The pre-evacuation order for Greer was issued by emergency management officials after the fire came within five miles of the town, said Brad Pitassi, a spokesman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team that is overseeing firefighting efforts.

"We've had successful burnout operations that have been occurring during the night, and we're hopefully getting the containments up in the next few days," Pitassi said Sunday.

Crews were making a stand early Sunday between the fire and the Apache County town, creating buffer areas and lighting backfires to try to keep the fire at bay. Firefighters were hoping windy conditions and dry lightning would not hamper their efforts.

Hundreds more firefighters took up position at the nearby mountain hamlet of Alpine to battle spot fires started by burning embers, he said.

"The head of the fire is knocking on Alpine's door," Pitassi told CNN by telephone. "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.

More than 2,100 firefighters were battling the week-old blaze, fueled by dry brush and pushed by strong winds, which had destroyed at least 144,000 acres by Sunday, according to the fire's incident commander.

The fire remained at 0% containment.

But Pitassi said crews were working to get an upper hand on the fire overnight after the weather calmed down following days of wind gusts that helped propel the fire to a 30-mile front.

Weather reports for Sunday, though, were grim, with forecasters predicting high humidity and dry lightning strikes by late afternoon.

The cause of the fire, which began May 29, 2011, is under investigation by the Apache County sheriff's department.

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.

Most of Greer's residents voluntarily evacuated after they were warned Friday, joining thousands from neighboring communities who were forced to leave their homes in recent days.

Many evacuees were waiting out the fire in Springerville, about 20 miles from the fires 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 Phoenix-based CNN affiliate KNXV.

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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.

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter, Phil Gast and Dana Ford contributed to this report.