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More Arizona wildfire evacuees allowed to go home

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Campfire may have started Arizona fire
  • NEW: 50 structures damaged or lost to another fire
  • Resident who returns home talks about kindness of strangers
  • Wallow fire is Arizona's biggest ever but not the most destructive to buildings
  • Residents of Nutrioso go home 13 days after an evacuation was ordered

Read more about this story from CNN affiliate KNXV.

(CNN) -- After 13 days of staying in campers, in trailers or with out-of-town relatives to escape a raging wildfire, the 200-plus residents of Nutrioso, Arizona, were allowed to go home Wednesday.

The Wallow fire, raging in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, has grown into the largest fire ever battled in Arizona, according to fire officials. As of Wednesday evening, it had burned 747 square miles -- 478,452 acres -- and was 29% contained, officials said.

The blaze, centered in a sparsely populated national forest, is not the most destructive in terms of property. It has destroyed 32 homes and 36 outbuildings including sheds and barns, compared with the 468,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire, which claimed 465 homes.

Crews are expecting higher winds and fire danger Thursday and Friday.

Officials with an interagency team fighting the blaze lifted the evacuation order issued June 2 for Nutrioso, allowing those with identification showing that they live there to return to the town Wednesday.

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Leighayn Green returned with her husband and their 13-year-old daughter to their undamaged home in Nutrioso. They stayed in different communities -- at times with friends and once in lodging provided by a stranger.

"There is a kindness being extended back and forth between communities," Green said several hours after she was back home.

Her husband, Tom Hollender, also a teacher, recalled grabbing clothing, photos, legal documents and computer hard drives when he had to leave their home June 2.

Their only real loss was spoiled food in a freezer and refrigerator that were without power for about a week.

Other homes were damaged or destroyed in Nutrioso, but Hollender did not know the number. From his house, the family can see intact homes, but the damaged forest is a mosaic of green and black, he said.

"The fire line around Nutrioso is a nice black," said Peter Frenzen, a spokesman for the Southwest Incident Management team, which is fighting the blaze. "That's just testimony to the tremendous work going on around all the threatened communities."

The black on a map signifies that the fire has been stopped outside the town.

"I was totally surprised," Nutrioso evacuee Alan Miller told CNN affiliate KNXV after learning that the evacuation order had been lifted. "I was sitting in my seat, squirming. I want to go out there now, but I can't do it until tomorrow."

The blaze has raged throughout the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest since May 29. KNXV reported Tuesday night that fire investigators suspect that the blaze was started by a campfire.

"It looks like it was a campfire, and we've got a couple of people of interest that we're talking to right now," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Christopher Knopp told KNXV. The names of those people have not been released.

Besides Wallow, the largest of the fires is the Horseshoe Two fire in southern Arizona, which started May 8. The blaze, which has scorched 184,198 acres, was 60% contained as of Wednesday afternoon.

The Monument Fire, which spilled into Mexico, had damaged or destroyed 40 homes and 10 other structures, according to the Cochise County, Arizona, Sheriff's Office.

Evacuations were ordered in some neighborhoods and other residents were told they may have to leave, the office said.

The Wallow fire has drawn 4,656 firefighters from Arizona and across the country. The blaze is the largest fire currently active in the United States, according to Inciweb, an interagency fire information service.

"The great news on this incident is, we still have a total of seven injuries and they're all minor," Frenzen said late Tuesday.

Jayson Coil, a manager with the incident response team, said forecast winds from the northwest could fan flames in areas that have been sheltered from the fire and push the blaze south.

Conditions around Greer, Arizona, also continued to improve, with power restored to the area, Coil said. But it is unclear when residents of that community might be allowed home. The evacuated residents of Alpine are also waiting to hear when they can go home. They may get the order first.

Regarding when the evacuation orders for Alpine and Greer might be lifted, "We're talking a three-, four- or five-day time frame," Frenzen said.

CNN's Samuel Gardner III and Phil Gast contributed to this report.