ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Increasingly fierce winds Thursday tested firefighters protecting clusters of homes, a national park, watersheds and other infrastructure from wildfires in the Southwest, including the largest blaze in Arizona history.
One fire at the Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona had burned or damaged at least 40 homes and 10 other structures over 14 square miles, or 9,500 acres. It also destroyed a chapel, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
At peak burning time on Thursday afternoon, the fire is "probably going to look like a bomb went off," fire information officer Dale Thompson said. The next three days will be tough because of the winds, he said. The blaze is 17 percent contained.
Elsewhere, smoke from a wildfire on the Colorado-New Mexico border lifted, allowing officials to reopen part of heavily traveled Interstate 25, just as the summertime travel season picks up.
Winds and searing temperatures also were moving into New Mexico,
where firefighters battling a blaze that surrounded Carlsbad Caverns National Park had it 70 percent contained.
No smoke was visible Thursday morning and firefighters were confident they had corralled the blaze and protected the park's visitors center and employee housing. The fire began Monday and charred about 30,500 acres of desert scrub and forced the park to close for three days.
"It looks very different. It's very black," Paula Bauer, a park management assistant, said of the highway leading to the visitors center. "There are pockets of green but otherwise it's all been burned over.
"One person said it looks like a moonscape out there," Bauer added.
About 150 visitors turned out at the park Wednesday night to see the evening bat flight. They spotted one of the firefighters walking by and pulled him over for a standing ovation. "They did a great thing," she said of the firefighters. "A standing ovation is the least of what we can do."
In northern New Mexico, Interstate 25 reopened early Thursday after being closed for four days because of a wildfire near Raton, N.M. However, two exits were closed because of the blaze burning on nearly 26,000 acres.
Some nearby residents were able to return home Wednesday and more evacuations were lifted Thursday, but residents who live closest to the eastern flank of the fire and some northwest of Raton remained out of their homes for another day.
The nearly 700 firefighters battling the fire were bracing for 35 mph winds Thursday and temperatures near triple digits. The wind was starting to whip by midday, and the humidity level was in the single digits.
The largest wildfire in Arizona history, meanwhile, grew again to 760 square miles, or 487,016 acres, as of Thursday morning, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It remained 29 percent contained.
Fire managers were worried that expected gusts of up to 45 mph could put pressure on the eastern edge of the fire.
They're especially concerned about the fire burning in the Blue Range area south of Alpine - the least secure part of firefighters' lines and closest to the nearest town still threatened, Luna, N.M., where about 200 people live.
A line of cut fuels and intentionally burned areas was completed between Luna and the fire itself at about daybreak on Thursday, and fire commanders expressed confidence it would hold.
"My opinion is that it being burned out and the direction of the winds will help us," Jerome Macdonald, who leads one of three incident management teams assigned to the massive blaze, said Thursday.
That said, "We're really concerned about the wind and so we repositioned a lot of resources and we ordered new resources."
Winds kicked up at midmorning, and the hills rising to the south of Springerville, Ariz., which had been smoke-free Wednesday, were putting off puffs of smoke as the fire rekindled. That same thing is expected to happen all along the eastern and southeastern front for the next three days.
Steady winds of 25 mph with gusts above 40 mph are expected, and
could send embers over wide fire lines and spark spot fires.
More than 4,600 firefighters are assigned to the fire.
A single campfire was the fire's "most likely cause," Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor Chris Knopp said. Knopp confirmed that investigators had questioned two people but declined to say any more about the investigation. He called them "persons of interest," not suspects.
On Thursday, Knopp said investigators were only able to get into the area in recent days, more than two weeks after the fire began on May 29. The people who have been questioned were encountered on the day the fire broke out.
So far, there is no evidence it was a deliberate arson. "If it's just negligence, it's one penalty - a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail," he said. "If it's deliberate, you can get a substantial prison sentence and be responsible for full restitution."
The costs of fighting the fire haven't been calculated, but they generally run into the tens of millions of dollars on similar-sized blazes.
It could be a week or more before a decision on charges is made,
he said. U.S. Forest law enforcement officers are conducting the
Hundreds of firefighters have been working for days along the
Mew Mexico line to keep the flames out of Luna. Thousands of others
are working the rest of the fire, including around three mountain
resort towns in Arizona.
Those residents still under evacuation could be allowed to go
home by the weekend, Macdonald said.
Alpine and Greer are under little fire threat now, but dangers such as burned trees that would topple must be removed before the area is reopened.
About 2,400 people remain evacuated from Alpine and Greer and smaller vacation enclaves after about 300 were allowed to return to
the town of Nutrioso on Wednesday. On Sunday, all 7,000 people evacuated from the towns of Springerville and Eagar were allowed to go home.
The blaze became the largest in state history Wednesday, exceeding a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles, or 469,000 acres, and destroyed 491 buildings. Though larger in size, the latest fire has destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins.
Elsewhere around the West, crews fought smaller fires near Yakima, Wash., Veyo, Utah, Westcliffe, Colo., and Fort Carson, Colo.
The outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, calls for fire potential to be above normal in those areas through September, but normal or less than normal across the rest of the West.
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