PINETOP, Ariz. — The gusty winds that have been fueling a vast wildfire in eastern Arizona slowed somewhat Thursday, allowing firefighters to make some headway against the blaze, which has turned much of the lush green pine forest here to black soot and sent thousands of residents fleeing for their lives.
Despite the improved conditions, the fire continued to burn dangerously close to several mountain towns that have been evacuated in recent days and also threatened electrical transmission lines that, if severed, could affect electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers in the region.
Thousands of firefighters combated the blaze on land and through an aggressive aerial attack. But the fire, which has at times surged unexpectedly, was still weeks away from being contained, officials said.
“It’s throwing everything it can at us,” said Joe Reinarz, who heads the multiagency effort to combat the fire. “The fire’s behavior is setting a new standard. You can’t get near it. It’s not giving us any breaks.”
As the number of displaced people increased with the Wednesday afternoon evacuation of Springerville, President Barack Obama called Governor Jan Brewer to pledge federal help and express his concern for those affected.
“The wind is dying down, and that’s good,” Brewer said during a tour of a high school that has been turned into an evacuation center for dozens of families. “We just have to wish for the best. These people are safe and alive — that’s what’s most important.”
Still, many of the people sprawled on cots looked dazed.
“I’ve inhaled enough smoke to be a chimney,” said Darlene Mueller, who was evacuated from her home in Eagar. “I’ve cried a river of tears. Now it looks like a wall of flames is heading toward everything I own.”
And the effects of the fire, which has sent smoke billowing through many surrounding states, could reach many, many more.
El Paso Electric, which provides power to southern New Mexico and western Texas, said the fire was burning near two of its transmission lines that carry power from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, about 40 percent of the company’s available generation.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the company said the fire was within 15 miles of its Springerville-Luna transmission line. If the lines are damaged by the fire, company officials said, El Paso Electric could have to use rolling blackouts as a conservation measure.
In Las Cruces, N.M., a city of about 100,000 that gets all of its power from El Paso Electric, officials were bracing for that possibility.
With temperatures in the mid-90s Thursday, city officials set up cooling stations complete with generators, fans and portable air-conditioners.