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Arizona fires burn tens of thousands of acres

A mountain community is evacuated, and smoke and ash blowing into New Mexico alarm many residents of Albuquerque.

June 04, 2011|By Michael Haederle
  • A roadblock is set up on U.S. 191 between Alpine and Springerville, Ariz. Wildfires in eastern Arizona have burned tens of thousands of acres and sent thick smoke and ash as far a Albuquerque, N.M., about 200 miles away.
A roadblock is set up on U.S. 191 between Alpine and Springerville, Ariz.… (Greg Bryan, Arizona Daily…)

Reporting from Albuquerque — Wildfires raged in eastern Arizona, burning tens of thousands of acres and sending smoke more than 200 miles away to New Mexico, where thousands of residents woke to find a fine layer of ash on their cars and a heavy haze hanging in the air.

Calls from panicky residents flooded Albuquerque's 911 emergency center Thursday night when strong winds blew smoke from the blazes into the metro area, dramatically limiting visibility. Many thought there was a fire in the Sandia Mountains foothills or in the cottonwood forest along the Rio Grande, said Darren White, the city's public safety director.

"We were dispatching firetrucks throughout the city," said White, who described seeing ash drifting like snowflakes in his headlights as he drove to an evening news conference.

"You could cut it with a knife," White said. "It felt like the conditions at the perimeter of a large fire."

Officials on Friday issued an air quality alert and urged people — particularly those with respiratory problems — to stay indoors, keep their windows closed and not run their swamp coolers, White said.

The Wallow fire, a 106,000-acre blaze burning in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona, was the prime culprit. That fire forced the evacuation of the town of Alpine, according to an incident Web page maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. According to statistics kept by the Forest Service, the blaze was the fourth-largest wildfire in state history.

Satellite pictures showed a long plume of smoke stretching diagonally across northern New Mexico and into eastern Colorado, said Dan Porter, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Prevailing upper-level winds blowing from southwest to northeast were pushing the smoke into the Albuquerque area from the Wallow fire and the 86,000-acre Horseshoe fire, burning farther south near the Arizona-New Mexico border, Porter said.

A nighttime inversion — a layer of warm air — effectively "put a lid on the atmosphere," trapping the particulates close to the ground, he said.

Daytime winds were likely to bring some fresh air to dilute the smoky layer, Porter said, but the inversion was likely to reoccur Friday night. The weekend forecast called for a temporary shift to winds from the south, Porter said, but the southwest-to-northeast flow could return early next week.

An unusually dry spring accompanied by desiccating winds has created tinderbox conditions in forests throughout the Southwest. Hot, windy conditions were expected to continue into next week, complicating firefighting efforts.

Haederle writes for The Times.

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