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Thousands forced to flee as Arizona wildfire rages

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Record-setting wildfire in Arizona
  • NEW: Officials order a partial evacuation of the Arizona town of Eagar
  • NEW: The latest orders raise the number of fire evacuees to more than 5,000
  • The fire has scorched 311,481 acres in eastern Arizona so far
  • Forecasters warn of an elevated fire risk Tuesday and Wednesday

(CNN) -- A fast-moving wildfire in eastern Arizona forced the evacuation Tuesday of up to 3,000 additional people, a Red Cross official said, as crews continued to battle the blaze.

Residents living in areas south of State Highway 260 and east of Greer, including South Fork and parts of Eagar, have been told to leave their homes, fire officials said.

The evacuees will join the estimated 2,700 people already on the road in eastern Arizona.

"We're probably in the range of between 5,500 and 5,700 people," said Mark Weldon, spokesman for the Arizona Red Cross.

Fire fighters struggled Tuesday to gain the slimmest of advantages over the Wallow Fire that has already burned more than 300,000 acres. Just 10 structures have been lost.

The fire produced dense plumes of smoke that were visible from space and thick enough to reduce visibility to less than a mile in some places, the National Weather Service said in an air-quality alert Tuesday.

Authorities ordered the evacuations of the Arizona cities Greer and Sunrise on Monday.

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Meanwhile, New Mexico officials told residents in the town of Luna to be prepared to leave, according Terri Wildermuth, a spokeswoman for the Incident Management Team that is overseeing firefighting efforts.

The Arizona blaze is beginning to threaten neighboring New Mexico, and spillover smoke pushed by high winds disrupted flights and prompted an air quality alert on the other side of the border, authorities said Tuesday.

"I'm starting to feel like I've been chain-smoking and all my cloths smell like I've been camping," said CNN iReporter Eric Place, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Sometimes, not like huge flakes, but little ash particles, are visible."

In Arizona, the Red Cross has set up an evacuation center at Blue Ridge High School in Lakeside.

So far, around 75 evacuees have checked into the shelter, said Weldon, though not everyone was expected to stay overnight.

More than 2,000 firefighters are engaged in the fight against the fire, along with 20 helicopters, 141 fire engines, 46 water tenders and eight bulldozers, according to officials.

The blaze remained at 0% containment Tuesday night.

The National Weather Service warned critical fire weather, with low humidity and high winds, would continue at least through Wednesday in Arizona. The National Interagency Fire Center said similar conditions would heighten the risk of fires across the southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and west Texas.

Some Arizonans displaced by the fire have second-guessed their decisions to leave their homes. Displaced resident Patrick Tureson told Phoenix-based CNN affiliate KNXV that life as evacuee is "horrible."

"I don't have a lot of hope right now," he said.

Tureson said he and his wife, Randa, received a call from fire officials Sunday night recommending they abandon their Coyote Canyon home.

"We wanted to stay but ended up leaving because it was getting worse and worse," Tureson told KNXV. "That fire was headed right towards me. It's just a bad situation."

The Wallow fire, which began May 29, has scorched 311,481 acres so far along the state's eastern border. Additionally, low humidity and high winds are fueling fires elsewhere in the state.

That includes three separate blazes that have consumed 165,017 acres in the Coronado National Forest, one of which has been burning since May 8, according to InciWeb, an Internet state-by-state database of active wildfires and other disasters.

Winds have also hampered the efforts of firefighters who've come to Arizona from across the United States to help battle the Wallow fire. That includes grounding planes that otherwise could be used to douse the flames from the air, Wildermuth said.

On Monday, the size of the fire jumped 21% as it spread to more than 40,000 acres.

"We had a hard day today," Joe Reinarz, an incident commander, told those attending a town hall meeting in Greer on Monday. "I don't know exactly where that fire is at this moment, because it is moving so fast."

"Tomorrow, (the wind) is supposed to pick back up all through Thursday," he said. "We've got two or three days ahead ... that will try all of us."

While there have been no significant injuries so far, officials and area residents complained of heavy smoke that has blanketed the area like fog.

The fire has bedeviled fire crews with its unpredictable path, thanks to wind gusts that have carried burning embers up to three miles.

Apache County Deputy Chief Sheriff Brannon Eagar on Monday evening urged people in the area, even if they haven't been ordered to evacuate yet, to get ready to leave.

"They can't predict how fast it's going to go," Eagar said at the town hall event in Greer. "So make sure, please, you get ready.

"If I can convince anybody, please go. It'll make your life so much easier," he added. "This thing is huge."

CNN's Phil Gast, Dana Ford and Ben Smith contributed to this report.