Thousands evacuated as Arizona wildfire threatens towns

A huge wildfire in the US state of Arizona that has forced thousands from their homes, is now the second largest in the state’s history.

Flames from the forest fire licked the ridges surrounding the eastern Arizona town of Eagar, forcing the evacuation of about half the 4000 residents.

People started streaming out of Eagar earlier today as sheriff’s deputies and police officers directed traffic. Flames were spotted on a ridge on the southeastern side of nearby Springerville and columns of orange smoke rose from the hills. Ash rained from the sky, which was filled with thick smoke, and when the sun peeked through, it was blood-red.

The blaze has burned 1259 square kilometres of ponderosa pine forest, driven by wind gusts of more than 96km/h, since it was sparked on May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire.

By today it had became the second-largest fire in Arizona history.

No serious injuries have been reported, but the fire has so far destroyed 10 buildings. It has cast smoke as far east as the state of Iowa and forced some planes to divert from Albuquerque, New Mexico, some 320km away.

Joe Reinarz, commander of a firefighting team battling the so-called Wallow fire, told residents that the fire was within 3km of Springerville and Eagar.

Eagar has about 4000 residents, while Springerville has another 2000.

In all, about 7000 people have been ordered to prepare for evacuation in recent days.

Several tiny resort towns in the nearby Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest were evacuated earlier this week.

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 Eagar, which sit in grassland at the edge of the forest.

The state’s largest blaze came in 2002 when flames blackened more than and destroyed 491 homes. A fire in 2005 burned about in the Phoenix suburb of Cave Creek and consumed 11 homes.

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