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Thousands evacuated as huge Arizona wildfire swells by 40,000 acres

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Arizona wildfire forces evacuations
  • NEW: A fire official says the next 2 to 3 days will likely continue to be difficult
  • NEW: A deputy sheriff urges people in the area to prepare to evacuate
  • The fire has scorched more than 233,522 acres in eastern Arizona
  • About 3,000 people in eastern Arizona have been told to evacuate

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

(CNN) -- One of the worst wildfires in Arizona history grew by 40,000 acres Monday, forcing the evacuation of thousands as crews battled heavy winds in trying to prevent the 30-mile line from advancing further, officials said.

The "Wallow Fire," as the blaze is known, has scorched 233,522 acres as of Monday evening -- up more than 21% from the 192,746 acres reported that morning -- said Terri Wildermuth, a spokeswoman for the Incident Management Team that is overseeing firefighting efforts.

"We had a hard day today," Joe Reinarz, an incident commander, told those attending a town hall meeting in Greer, Arizona, on Monday evening. "I don't know exactly where that fire is at this moment, because it is moving so fast."

The eastern Arizona wildfire, which began May 29, has forced the closure of the Apache National Forest and prompted the evacuation of about 3,000 people, said Mark Weldon of the Arizona Red Cross. Some 2,000 of those are in Alpine, about 700 are in Greer, 200 to 300 are in Nutrioso, and fewer than 100 are in Sunrise.

The National Weather Service instituted a "red flag warning," which means weather conditions are ripe for wildfires, for much of the northern half of the state. In eastern Arizona, southwest winds blew 25 to 28 mph through the region Monday with nighttime gusts forecast to blow as strong as 40 mph. Wind speeds are expected to slow somewhat but still be strong in the coming days, the weather service said, with daytime temperatures in the most affected regions forecast in the mid-60s.

Arizona town overwhelmed by fires
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"Tomorrow, (the wind) is supposed to pick back up all through Thursday," said Reinarz. "We've got two or three days ahead ... that will try all of us."

The U.S. Forest Service said the fire is the fourth largest in Arizona's history, but Brad Pitassi of the incident management team said it is the third largest. While there have been no significant injuries so far, 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, Arizona, said the fire and resulting smoke had forced a run on her store from customers looking to buy face masks.

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.

The fire has bedeviled fire crews with its unpredictable path, thanks to wind gusts that have carried burning embers up to three miles. Apache County Deputy Chief Sheriff Brannon Eagar on Monday evening urged people in the area, even if they haven't been ordered to evacuate yet, to get ready to leave.

"They can't predict how fast it's going to go," Eagar said at the town hall event in Greer. "So make sure, please, you get ready.

"If I can convince anybody, please go. It'll make your life so much easier," he added. "This thing is huge."

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