PHOENIX — Some residents evacuated because of wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico were allowed to return to their homes Saturday, as firefighters battled strong winds and hot weather to try to keep more homes, dry forests and stretches of high desert from being consumed by the flames.
With summer rains still weeks away, forecasters said fire crews across the Southwest would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that has dogged them for days. More high-wind warnings and fire weather watches were on tap for many areas through the weekend.
In eastern Arizona along the New Mexico border, residents of Alpine were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning. Greer residents still remain evacuated by the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history.
The Wallow fire has consumed about 775 square miles, a little more than 500,000 acres, and more than 4,500 firefighters are trying to stop its advance. The blaze this week exceeded a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings. Despite its size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins.
U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who owns a home in Greer, was touring the fire area Saturday along with Sen. John McCain and Arizona congressmen Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar.
Containment rose to 38 percent Friday night, but more winds were predicted through the weekend with gusts of up to 60 mph possible.
Meanwhile, the remaining evacuations from a fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border were lifted Saturday morning for residents of Pine Valley Estates, Sugarite Canyon and Yankee Canyon just outside of Raton, N.M.
Containment on the nearly 28,000-acre Track Fire jumped to 45 percent. Fire officials said existing fire lines were holding despite strong winds in the area.
Investigators from New Mexico State Forestry and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway said Saturday that fire apparently was started last Sunday by engine exhaust from an ATV.
They said the rider was trespassing onto land owned by BNSF railway through access from nearby private property. The Colfax County Sheriff’s Department now is seeking information on the person or persons riding or operating ATVs in the area near the origin of the fire.
In southern Arizona, a wildfire south of Sierra Vista remained 15 percent contained at more than 19,000 acres or 30 square miles. Up to 50 homes already have been destroyed by the Monument fire south of Sierra Vista.
About 12,000 residents remain evacuated as firefighters continue slurry drops to keep the fire from pushing down a canyon and toward Sierra Vista.
Fire spokesman Greg Poncin called the situation “a little bit of a nail-biter” but said crews were hopeful that containment lines would hold.
Another wildfire in Cochise County is 70 percent contained after charring about 206,000 acres, more than 320 square miles.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer flew over the area blackened by the Monument and Horseshoe Two fires Friday and declared an emergency, freeing up state funds to help with the firefighting efforts.
U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell was scheduled to visit the Arizona fire operations Saturday and assess the progress.
All of the Arizona wildfires are believed to be human caused. Investigators believe a campfire was the most likely cause of the Wallow fire.
Authorities in southern New Mexico were also looking for “persons of interest” as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso.
As for the causes of the other blazes that have raced across parts of New Mexico this week, investigators are still trying to make determinations.
Also around the West, fires still were burning near Yakima, Wash., and in southern Colorado. A wildfire near St. George, Utah, was fully contained after scorching more than 1,000 acres of federal and stare rangelands.