Wallow Fire Becomes Third Largest in Arizona History

VIDEO: Clayton Sandell reports from Springerville, Arizona on damage caused by fires.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Ariz. Wildfires Burn Thousands of Acres Overnight

A bright orange sky glows throughout much of Arizona as firefighters attempt to gain ground on the Wallow fire, which is blazing over 144,000 acres near the New Mexico-Arizona state line.

The blaze became the third largest in state history, officials said today, even after emergency crews intentionally started a series of smaller fires Saturday, trying to halt the advance of the fire. The Wallow fire has already devastated an estimated 225 square miles, toward mountain communities in eastern Arizona.

Crews said today they were seeing the first signs that the backfires might keep the blaze from reaching an area of homes and vacation residences.

Around Alpine and Nutrioso, crews were battling blowing embers that that they feared could start small spot fires. The fire was on the outskirts of Alpine today and was about two miles away from homes in Nutrioso, Bob Dyson, a spokesman for the team fighting the blaze, told ABC affiliate KNXV-TV in Phoenix.

Because of fear of the threatening high winds, residents in the summer resort town of Greer and other communities on the eastern edge of the White Mountains were placed under an evacuation alert.

The town emptied out Saturday in what was supposed to be one of the busiest weekends of the year for vacationers.

"It's scary. I see black smoke and I panic, you know," said Shaneen Elefante, who works at a local lodge. "It's very devastating to a lot of the families -- the people who work up here, just the whole community."

David Rolls and his family said they decided to cut short their weekend visit after preparing for the worst.

"We got ourselves ready to go," Rolls said. "My wife took a lot of pictures last night of the contents, so that this morning, we were ready to go."

The town of Blue River has already been evacuated by order Greenlee County officials, and other areas that have been evacuated include Hannagan Meadow Lodge, Sprucedale Guest Ranch, Brentwood Church Camp, Hannagan campground, KP campground, West Fork Black River campground, and East Fork Black River campground, according to the Incident website.

Firefighters have worked around the clock to protect Arizona communities from the massive wildfire, which started on May 31 and has already cost $3 million to fight.

Helicopters dumped water and retardant on smaller fires burning in far southern Arizona to avoid fire threatening two communities and a church camp. As of late Saturday, crews were able to control the blaze in that area.

Huge plumes of smoke can be seen as far away as New Mexico and Colorado. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said Saturday that progress had been made to control the blaze, but that the woodlands burning "is still a frightening sight."

"It appeared from the air that it's moving somewhat rapidly," Brewer said during an aerial tour of the region and a briefing from fire team's commander in Springerville. "It was horrific and of the likes of a fire which I have never experienced from the air before."

With no natural barriers to stop the blaze, the Wallow fire is one of the worst wildfires in Arizona's history.

The state saw its worst fire in 2002, when the Rodeo-Chediski fire burned 469,000 acres across the central section of the state along the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. In 2004, the Cave Creek complex fire burned 248,000 acres in 2005.

Even if the backfires halt the progress of the blaze, it will be days before residents will be allowed to return to assess the damage to their homes and farmlands.

The state is also fighting the Horseshoe Two fire, which started May 8 and have 800 firefighters battling it.