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AZ Wildfire May Become Largest In History

San Francisco Chronicle via YellowBrix

June 15, 2011

ARIZONA – An enormous wildfire in eastern Arizona is poised to become the largest in state history, as firefighters tried Tuesday to keep the blaze from crossing into New Mexico and devouring a small mountain town.

Fires grew elsewhere in New Mexico and at the state’s border with Colorado, where flames forced the closure of a busy interstate highway.

In Luna, N.M., evacuation plans are in place for the roughly 200 residents. Crews have been working to protect the town for days, hacking down brush, using chain saws to cut trees and setting small fires to burn anything that the approaching flames could use as fuel.

“That’s what’s saved the town,” fire incident command spokesman Sean Johnson said. “The line is holding.”

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Fires have devoured hundreds of square miles in the Southwest and Texas since the wildfire season began several weeks ago. Scant winter precipitation in Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas and southern Colorado is blamed on La Niña- cooler waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that keep the jet stream from dipping down and bringing storms to the region.

The huge blaze in Arizona was also made worse by the extremely thick forest, the result of a century of fire suppression that has let more trees grow in the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest.

Fires that once scorched only the grasses and small trees on forest floor now reach into the tree crowns and skip across miles of terrain, destroying millions of trees. Forests across the West have similar problems.

The Arizona fire has burned more than 733 square miles since Memorial Day weekend and destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins.

A small fraction of the fire was in New Mexico, but enough additional territory in Arizona was certain to be consumed in coming days for it to become the largest in state history. It was just 18 percent contained.

Just a few thousand of the 469,407 acres burned as of Tuesday were in New Mexico. The blaze in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is growing on all but its northern front, chewing up thousands of acres of forest a day.

The previous state record was held by the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which burned 732 square miles but destroyed far more buildings. That blaze northwest of the current fire burned 491 buildings and cost about $400 million to fight.