A photographer checks out the Wallow fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
Reporting from Eagar, Ariz. — Thousands of wildfire evacuees began returning to Eagar and Springerville on Monday amid warnings from health officials of a lingering menace: smoke and soot.
Although fire officials said the two towns were no longer threatened by the massive Wallow fire, which has consumed nearly 700 square miles of mountainous territory, they urged residents to stay away from the area until more smoke has cleared.
Early Monday, particle levels exceeded hazardous levels in the towns, officials said. The tiny organic particles of mainly charred pine and spruce are about one-twenty-fifth the width of a human hair and can become lodged deep inside the lungs. The elderly, young children and those with respiratory problems are most at risk.
Photos: Fires rage in Arizona
The air quality is worse at night when the winds die down and smoke settles in the mountain valley, said Gaylene Kirkhorn, a spokeswoman for the Apache County Public Health Services District. Typically, wind levels pick up at daybreak and push the particles out of the area, bettering the air quality.
"When you have a huge incendiary fire of this nature, it burns so hot and it burns things so fine that what people are breathing in are of microscopic size," said Mark Shaffer, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
Winds have pushed some smoke east, covering wide swaths of New Mexico and inundating Albuquerque for more than a week. It has also crept into portions of southwestern Texas.
At least half of the residents had returned Monday, some wearing bandannas tied around their face or mouth masks for protection, measures that do little to keep out the particles, Kirkhorn said.
Light winds forecast in the coming days are expected to help about 4,300 firefighters battle the blaze, which was 10% contained Monday. Fire officials are confident that they have stifled the fire's progress on its northeast front. Yet they cautioned that a single ember picked up and dropped by winds can ignite other blazes and that the danger from the second-largest fire in Arizona history was not over.
"The fire wanted to go north; we stopped it to the north," said fire operations chief Jerome McDonald. "That is not a guarantee that it's not going to go other directions."
On Monday, the poor air quality did not keep Lucille Ashcroft, 71, and her husband, Ross, from returning home. She had a garden full of roses, peonies and poppies to tend to.
"They've been neglected," she said while yanking at weeds. Although the couple said they felt the smoke a bit in their chest, the lack of a fire threat was enough reason to return home.
Raj Bhakta, 44, owner of Americas Best Value Inn in Springerville, kept the hotel open to make sure visiting firefighters and law enforcement officers had a place to stay in town. For the last week, he's been driving about 15 miles out of town for some fresh air when it gets to be too much.
"It's been nothing but headaches, a dry throat, runny nose and watery eyes for the last 15 days," Bhakta said. "We're tired of dealing with it."
Photos: Fires rage in Arizona