SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — Firefighters on Sunday expressed the first real sense of hope that they were making progress in their battle against a huge eastern Arizona wildfire burning since May, and officials began allowing roughly 7,000 residents to return home to two towns threatened for days by the blaze.
To guard against flare-ups, fire crews remained in Springerville and the nearby town of Eagar, the two communities where evacuation orders were lifted over the weekend. But the blaze was "no longer a threat to the citizens" returning home, said Apache County Sheriff's Cmdr. Webb Hogle, although authorities still cautioned the elderly and those with health problems or very young children to stay away because of lingering smoke.
"We've been praying every day to come home," Springerville resident Valarina Walker, 49, said Sunday while chatting with other returning locals outside a convenience store in town.
The bed of her red pickup truck was overflowing with boxes of photo albums and family heirlooms.
"Just took what couldn't be replaced, left the rest behind," Walker said crying. "I'm just so happy and excited to be home. We thank God for those firefighters."
About 2,700 other people who live in several resort communities in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest remained under an evacuation order.
On the road into downtown Springerville, a working class town nestled near the forest edge, a flashing sign read, "We missed you, welcome home."
"I just cried when I drove past that sign," said Jane Finch, 51, who had just returned to Eagar and had a tearful reunion with her husband, who stayed behind to keep the Circle K open for firefighters. "It's so good to be home and see all the people we missed."
Meanwhile, firefighters stopped short of jubilation Sunday morning, but said they were finally gaining ground against the entire 693-square-mile inferno that was running along the New Mexico state line, even as the winds picked up considerably and containment remained at just 6 percent.
"Everything is holding," Fire Operations Chief Jerome Macdonald said. "Compared to what we've been dealing with just two days ago ... we're feeling a lot more confident. We turned a corner."
Macdonald said strong winds have actually helped firefighters as the gusts burned off fuel in the central part of the blaze before it reached their fire lines. He expected fire containment to go up to 10 percent when new figures were released Monday morning.
Fire is burning in New Mexico, but it was started intentionally by crews trying to burn out fuel in front of the approaching blaze.
"We were not going to let the fire dictate to us when it crossed the line," said Jerry Kelly, a fire information officer working on the eastern front of the fire, said Sunday. "We were going to make the decision when and where that happened."
On Friday, officials said the blaze had crossed the border, but they said Sunday that turned out to be a separate fire, possibly started by lightning, and was quickly extinguished.
High winds and very low humidity forecast for Sunday afternoon will test the optimism of the thousands of firefighters on the lines.
"If they can hold things with theses high winds they will breathe a sigh of relief," Kelly said.
About 30 homes and cabins have been destroyed since the fire began May 29.
While the blaze remained perilously close – about four miles away – to two major power lines that bring electricity from Arizona to West Texas, Macdonald said firefighters were able to burn off most of the fuel in between, lessening the risk of disruption. The fire still threatened the picturesque Arizona mountain towns of Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer, where officials said residents would likely not be allowed back in for up to five more days.
The small New Mexico town of Luna, just across the state line, also remained under threat. About 150 New Mexico National Guard soldiers were assisting crews with evacuations and security.
Officials said about 4,300 people were working to bring the fire under control, and the blaze had so far cost about $27 million to fight.
It is the second-largest in state history, and Macdonald said he didn't it expect it would surpass the state's largest – the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire that burned 732 square miles (1,895 sq. kilometers) and destroyed 491 buildings.
"I think it's going to have a hard time" getting much larger, Macdonald said.
Officials were still warning residents in the re-opened mountain towns, and as far away as Albuquerque and Santa Fe, of severe air quality issues from the smoke.
At one point over the weekend in eastern Arizona, levels of tiny, sooty particles in the air were nearly 20 times the federal health standard, said Mark Shaffer of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
The microscopic particles, about 1/28th the width of a human hair, can get lodged in the lungs and cause serious health problems, both immediate and long-term, he said.
In New Mexico, officials warned residents to limit strenuous outdoor activities and not to use their swamp coolers because they would suck the smoke indoors.
Late Saturday afternoon, authorities lifted an evacuation order for about 100 homes in a western New Mexico subdivision where residents had been kept away since mid-week.
Firefighters are battling another major wildfire in far southeastern Arizona, also near the New Mexico line. The so-called Horseshoe Two blaze burned through 211 square miles or 135,000 acres of brush and timber since it started in early May. The fire has destroyed 23 structures but caused no serious injuries. It was 45 percent contained and fire officials hope to have it fully contained by late June.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed from Phoenix.