ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Firefighters trying to protect homes, a popular national park and tinder dry patches of forest were tested Thursday as temperatures peaked and winds started to whip up the flames of several wildfires burning throughout the Southwest.
Along the New Mexico-Colorado border, the winds pushed one fire toward breaks that had been carved into the rugged landscape by bulldozers. Crews had anticipated the fire's movement and were prepared to hold the line with help from helicopters and air tankers.
The winds were not as strong as expected, but fire officials said Thursday evening that the area was not out of danger.
"For the next couple of days we're still going to see gusty winds, very hot temperatures and dry conditions. It's possible we won't have a red-flag warning, but we will still see some weather conditions that will challenge our containment lines," fire information officer Denise Ottaviano said.
The fire had been sending up giant plumes of smoke that could be seen from Raton, N.M., each afternoon as the flames ate through nearly 26,000 acres of rugged terrain along the state line.
Thursday was a little different. There were some columns of smoke on the northern side, but not as severe as earlier in the week, partly because crews had made progress on the southern flank and the winds were pushing out of the southwest and away from town.
Interstate 25 between Raton and Trinidad, Colo., reopened early Thursday after being closed for four days because of the blaze.
Some nearby residents were able to return home Wednesday and more evacuations were lifted Thursday, but residents who live closest to the eastern and some northwest of Raton remained out of their homes for another day.
Fire officials confirmed Thursday that eight homes and six other structures have been destroyed.
The nearly 700 firefighters battling the fire did experience some gusts Thursday and temperatures near triple digits. The humidity level was in the single digits, and similar weather conditions were expected through the weekend.
The wind also raised concerns among firefighters battling Arizona's largest blaze at 760 square miles, or 487,016 acres, in the eastern part of the state. A pre-evacuation notice for an area in southeast Eagar was issued Thursday afternoon because of high winds and possible spot fires.
While there were no flames jumping along the ridge above the community like the previous week, fire information officer Richard Hadley said authorities wanted residents to be prepared. He said smoke could be seen rising from the hills to the south as flames kicked up in small unburned patches of vegetation within the fire perimeter.
Containment on the fire inched up to 33 percent Thursday, but more winds were predicted through the weekend.
"We're kind of keeping our fingers crossed for the next three days because of the predictions," Hadley said.
Fire managers were concerned about the fire burning in the Blue Range area south of Alpine — the least secure part of firefighters' lines and closest to the nearest town still threatened, Luna, N.M., where about 200 people live.
A line of cut fuels and intentionally burned areas was completed between Luna and the fire itself at daybreak Thursday, and fire commanders expressed confidence it would hold.
More than 4,600 firefighters are assigned to the fire.
A single campfire was the fire's "most likely cause," Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor Chris Knopp said. He confirmed that investigators had questioned two people but declined to say any more about the investigation. He called them "persons of interest," not suspects.
On Thursday, Knopp said investigators were only able to get into the area in recent days, more than two weeks after the fire began on May 29. The people who have been questioned were encountered on the day the fire broke out.
So far, there is no evidence it was a deliberate arson. "If it's just negligence, it's one penalty — a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail," he said. "If it's deliberate, you can get a substantial prison sentence and be responsible for full restitution."
The costs of fighting the fire haven't been calculated, but they generally run into the tens of millions of dollars on similar-sized blazes.
It could be a week or more before a decision on charges is made, he said. U.S. Forest law enforcement officers are conducting the investigation.
Hundreds of firefighters have been working for days along the Mew Mexico line to keep the flames out of Luna. Thousands of others are working the rest of the fire, including around three mountain resort towns in Arizona.
About 2,400 people remain evacuated from Alpine and Greer and smaller vacation enclaves after about 300 were allowed to return to the town of Nutrioso on Wednesday. On Sunday, all 7,000 people evacuated from the towns of Springerville and Eagar were allowed to go home.
The blaze became the largest in state history Wednesday, exceeding a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles, or 469,000 acres, and destroyed 491 buildings. Though larger in size, the latest fire has destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins.
On the Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona, another blaze had burned or damaged at least 40 homes and 10 other structures over 14 square miles, or 9,500 acres. It also destroyed a chapel, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
At peak burning time on Thursday afternoon, the fire is "probably going to look like a bomb went off," fire information officer Dale Thompson said. The next three days will be tough because of the winds, he said. The blaze is 17 percent contained.
Winds and searing temperatures also hit southeastern New Mexico, where firefighters battling a blaze that surrounded Carlsbad Caverns National Park had it 70 percent contained.
No smoke was visible Thursday and firefighters were confident they had corralled the blaze and protected the park's visitor center and employee housing. The fire began Monday and charred about 30,500 acres of desert scrub and forced the park to close for three days.
Elsewhere around the West, crews fought smaller fires near Yakima, Wash., Veyo, Utah, and Westcliffe, Colo.
The outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, calls for fire potential to be above normal in some parts of the West through September.
Christie reported from Springerville, Ariz. Associated Press writers Mark Carlson in Phoenix and Sheila V Kumar in Denver contributed to this report.
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