Springerville, Arizona, Jun 8 : About 2,000 residents of the eastern Arizona town of Eagar were ordered to evacuate Tuesday as flames from a raging forest fire appeared on ridges surrounding the town and neighboring Springerville. More evacuations were likely.
Firefighters had spent the day working feverishly to prepare a defense for the two towns as residents -- told earlier that an evacuation order was likely -- prepared to leave.
Sheriffs issued the order just before 4 p.m.
Sheriff's deputies and police officers from the communities were in the streets directing traffic as people started to stream out of Eagar. Flames have been spotted on a ridge on the southeastern side of Springerville and columns of orange smoke were rising from the hills.
Eagar has about 4,000 residents, while Springerville has another 2,000. In all, about 7,000 people were ordered to prepare for evacuation in recent days.
The blaze has burned 486 square miles (1,258.74 sq. kilometers) of pine forest since it started on May 29 and is the second-biggest in Arizona history. Several tiny resort towns in the nearby Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest were evacuated earlier.
Earlier in the day, bulldozers scraped away brush and trees to create a barrier between the towns and the approaching flames in the surrounding mountains. Other crews removed brush from around homes and firefighters were sent to protect buildings from the flames. Many residents were ready for the order to get out.
"If given the word, then I'm gonna go," Eagar resident Gerald McCardle said. "We're already packed. We packed last night, and we're out of here."
The American Red Cross has an evacuation center at the high school about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west in Lakeside, Arizona that can handle several thousand people, spokesman Mark Weldon said.
The center was opened at Blue Ridge high after last week's evacuation of about 2,700 people from nearly mountain communities. Extra cots, blankets and comfort kits were rushed to the school early Tuesday as the threat heightened.
The flames were about 10 miles (16 kilometers) outside the towns early Tuesday. Winds have been driving the flames up to 8 miles (12 kilometers) a day since the fire began a week ago, possibly from an unattended campfire.
Strong afternoon winds kicked up Tuesday but were less fierce than expected. Thousands of firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, hope to keep the flames from getting into Springerville and Eager, which sit in grassland at the edge of the forest.
With a blaze as large as this being driven by unpredictable and gusty winds, putting the fire out is a gargantuan task. All fire managers can do is try to steer it away from homes and cabins by using natural terrain, burning out combustible material first and trying to put out spot fires sparked by embers blowing in front of the main fire front.
New mapping showed that some fire breaks have held but the wildfire was still considered zero percent contained Tuesday.
Dozens of firefighters worked Tuesday alongside a stretch of highway about two miles outside of Springerville, burning combustible material such as vegetation along one side of the road in an effort to keep the approaching fire from jumping across and heading into town.
Puffs of smoke billowed from underneath juniper and pinyon trees as flames licked at the trees.
In Springerville, it was raining ash and the sky was filed with thick smoke. When the sun peeked through, it was blood-red. No serious injuries have been reported, but the fire has destroyed five buildings so far.
The future of the towns remained in doubt because there was no sign winds would stop in the coming days and no rain at all was in the forecast. Authorities warned Springerville and Eagar residents that they may have to join about 2,700 others who have already fled.
The blaze has consumed 311,481 acres since it started May 29. It has been propelled by wind gusts of more than 96 kmph. Fire officials said the blaze died down a bit overnight and crews planned to work on its northeast side Tuesday. AP