A helicopter battles the blaze with lake water as smoke rises from the trees of the San Juan Fire near Vernon, Ariz. on June 27, 2014. / Patrick Breen, Arizona Republic
VERNON, Ariz. -- Fire crews are hoping that lighter winds on Saturday will spur progress against a wildfire that has charred more than 8 square miles in eastern Arizona's White Mountains and prompted some evacuations.
The wind-whipped San Juan Fire grew to an estimated 5,000 acres by late Friday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of some nearby mountain communities and threatening about 90 homes and sheds.
Fire officials were working to re-establish containment lines around the west and east boundaries of the blaze that were breached by flames at about 4 p.m., according to the U.S. Forest Service.
There have been no reported injuries, and its cause remains under investigation.
The fire is about 135 miles east of Phoenix, near the New Mexico line. It's wedged between areas heavily damaged by the Wallow and Rodeo fires, two of the largest fires in Arizona history.
The Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which started in June 2002 and burned for nearly three weeks, began as two separate fires that merged in eastern Arizona. Both were human-caused. At the time it was the largest fire in state history until the Wallow Fire, named after the Bear Wallow Wilderness, was sparked in May 2011. Each blaze burned about a half-million acres in Arizona.
"Right now, the San Juan Fire is the number one in the Southwest,'' said Bill Morse, a spokesman for the Southwest Incident Management Team.
However, authorities said winds in the area were expected to subside Friday night and be light Saturday, which would aid in the fire fight.
Carlock Ranch, in a rural area between Vernon and McNary, was evacuated Friday and four to five people were asked to leave, said Sgt. Richard Guinn, an Apache County Sheriff's Office spokesman. Authorities closed the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest south of Vernon, where flames could be seen from a few miles away.
The fire is burning partially in areas thinned by the White Mountain Stewardship Project during the past decade. Small diameter trees are harvested and turned into forest products by contractors, removing fuels that have contributed to massive fires.
The treated areas are in the north and northeast portions of the fire and the previous burn area is along the eastern edge, said Kevin Bailey, a spokesman for the incident commander managing the fire.
"Fuels treatment has really decreased fire behavior and is allowing crews to work closer to the fire's edge,'" Bailey said.
Although the thinning should help firefighters attack the blaze, fire behavior in thinned-out areas needs further study and pre-evacuation orders were issued for small nearby communities as a precaution, he said
Authorities issued a pre-evacuation notice for Green's Peak Hideaway and Hidden Meadows, Bailey said.
Apache County Sheriff's Office deputies went door to door in the Green's Peak Hideaway and Hidden Meadows communities on Friday, said Sgt. Richard Guinn, a spokesman for the office and the county's emergency services coordinator. They counted 250 structures of various types but found only four people who had stayed behind.
Guinn said the area includes many summer homes and some of them could have been unoccupied before the fire.
"We think a lot of people decided to go ahead and leave,'' Guinn said.
Firefighters were redeploying resources from the Dehose Fire to the San Juan fire as a Type 2 Management Team assumed responsibility for fighting the blaze, he said. The response included nine 20-person handcrews , 12 engines, 5 air tankers and 4 helicopters.
The blaze produced a lot of smoke as it burned off of the Fort Apache Reservation and on to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, which could have inflated some estimates about the fire's size, said Connie Birkland, a spokeswoman for the incident-management team that was taking control of the blaze.
Bailey said the blaze is estimated to have burned about 1,500 acres.
Officials described the fire as "narrow" and said it could have already burned on to an area that was previously thinned and treated to remove dry fuels, offering some hope that fire crews could gain an advantage Friday.
"They hit it hard (on Thursday)," Birkland said.
On Thursday night, officials from the Apache County Sheriff's Office issued the mandatory evacuations for those living in the Red Cabin Ranch subdivision and the Whiting homestead.
No residents stayed at a shelter the Red Cross set up Thursday night in Eager, according to a Red Cross spokesman.
Bailey said the school on Friday would serve as a "reception center" to assist any evacuees.
The fire southeast of Vernon was moving northeast between parcels of land that burned during wildfires in 2002 and 2011, authorities said.
Should it continue on that path, it would hit land with dry underbrush where it could make a run up trees and produce spot fires as winds gust around 20 mph over the weekend.
"We'll have to be very mindful of that," said Marta Call, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. "It's moving into untreated areas where there's a lot of dry underbrush, steep terrain, winds are gusting and temperatures rising."
Guinn said authorities have identified the point of origin in the national forest, an unimproved area commonly used by campers about 16 or 17 miles east of Show Low.
The area is too hot at this time for fire investigator to enter, he said. Stage two restrictions have been in place, barring campfires, charcoal fires and machinery such as chain saws.
Guinn said the conditions have been very prone to fire.
Contributing: Associated Press
Read the original story: Wind sends Ariz. wildfire past containment lines