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Huge AZ wildfire spreads, health conditions worsen

Associated Press
A police officer wears a mask while manning a checkpoint as smoke from the Wallow Fire fills the air near Springerville, Ariz., Saturday, June 11, 2011. Smoke from the huge wildfire in eastern Arizona that has claimed more than 30 homes and forced nearly 10,000 people to flee has officials worried about serious health impacts to residents and firefighters as tiny particles of soot in the air reached "astronomical" levels. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — New Mexico officials are warning residents of potentially hazardous air quality over the weekend from throat-burning smoke spewing from a gigantic wildfire in eastern Arizona that has been blazing for several weeks.

The 672-square-mile fire jumped the state line late Friday as firefighters moved to counter spot fires sprouting up in New Mexico and lighting their own fires to beat it back.

Health officials warned residents as far away as Albuquerque and Santa Fe about potential respiratory hazards, noting sensitive groups such as those with asthma, lung or heart disease, children, pregnant women and seniors should take extra precautions.

"Your eyes are your best tools to determine if it's safe to be outside," said Chris Minnick, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health.

The forest fire remained largely uncontained and officials said the return of gusty southwesterly winds Saturday stoked the blaze where it had been just smoldering before.

Levels of tiny, sooty particles from the smoke in eastern Arizona were nearly 20 times the federal health standard on Saturday. The good news was that was down from roughly 40 times higher a day earlier, but it was all at the mercy of the ever-changing winds.

Sunday could get even worse, said Mark Shaffer of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

The microscopic particles, about 1/28th the width of a human hair, can get lodged in the lungs and cause serious health problems, both immediate and long-term, Shaffer said.

"Larger particles, you breathe in and you cough and it tends to get rid of it," he said, adding that the tiny particles get "very, very deep into your system and are very difficult to expel."

New Mexico officials were monitoring air quality and are advising residents to pay close attention to conditions.

"Just because you can't see the fire doesn't mean there isn't an effect from the smoke blowing into the state," Minnick said.

Guarding the picturesque mountain town of Greer, where 22 homes and cabins were destroyed earlier in the week, firefighter Matt Howell, 28, described the difficulty of working in such smoky, choking conditions.

"You get in there and it's hard to breathe," he said. "You start coughing, can't get that good nice breath of air."

More than 30 homes have been destroyed since the fire began May 29, thousands of residents have fled communities and the blaze posed a potential danger to two major power lines that bring electricity from Arizona to West Texas as more than 3,200 firefighters fought to bring it under control.

Containment regressed slightly to just 5 percent, on the northeastern edge.

Nearly 10,000 people have been evacuated from the towns of Springerville and Eagar and from several other mountain communities in the forest, where officials said residents may be allowed back in soon, but also warned of lingering air pollution.

"Even when the word is given that you can come home, there's still going to be some air quality issues," said Eagar Town Manager Bill Greenwood.

Late Saturday afternoon, authorities said an evacuation order for about 100 homes in the Escudilla-Bonita Acres subdivision in New Mexico had been lifted. The order had kept residents away from their homes since mid-week.

The fire is the second-largest in state history and could eclipse the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire in size, although only a fraction of the homes have burned. That blaze burned 732 square miles (1,895 sq. kilometers) and destroyed 491 buildings.

The current Wallow Fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has destroyed 31 homes or cabins, fire spokesman Jim Whittington said. Two dozen outbuildings and a truck also were lost and five homes damaged in Greer when the fire moved in Wednesday night.

Firefighters are battling another major wildfire in far southeastern Arizona, also near the New Mexico line. The so-called Horseshoe Two blaze burned through 211 square miles or 135,000 acres of brush and timber since it started in early May. The fire has destroyed 23 structures but caused no serious injuries. It was 45 percent contained and fire officials hope to have it fully contained by late June.

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