SPRINGERVILLE - Stiff winds whipped up the gigantic Wallow Fire in the mountains of Eastern Arizona on Monday, forcing the evacuation of a third resort town and casting a smoky haze over states as far away as Iowa.
Officials said Monday evening that residents in and around Springerville and Eagar should be preparing to leave as the fire moves to the northeast.
Evacuation orders could come in 24 to 48 hours, said Joe Reinarz, commander of the interagency team fighting the fire.
"You may not have that much time," he said at a community meeting near Eagar on Monday night. "We don't know where this fire is at this point. It's moving so fast, with so much smoke."
Winds of about 30 mph, with gusts above 60 mph, blew heavy smoke from the fire into Greer, a picturesque town where most of the 200 full-time residents had already fled.
Everyone still there and in the nearby area known as Sunrise was ordered to leave Monday afternoon.
"It's heartbreaking," Allan Johnson, owner of the 101-year-old Molly Butler Lodge in Greer, the oldest in the state, said of the fire barreling down on the resort town. He was pessimistic about the chances of saving the lodge and the hundreds of vacation homes in the area.
"We're numb - our entire family and our friends are just numb," he said.
Late Monday, a huge pall of black smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eagar and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people.
The winds and expected lightning are making matters worse in an area dotted with cabins and campgrounds that have long provided a cool summer getaway from the oppressive heat of the nearby desert.
"It's coming from the southeast, and it's pushing everything to the northeast," fire information officer Kelly Wood said. "We don't know exactly how far it's gone. It's fair to say it's going to grow with these winds."
The fire was projected to have grown to nearly 365 square miles, officials said Monday, based on overnight mapping flights that have not yet been verified. Officials believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the blaze more than a week ago.
Several hundred people turned out for a community meeting Monday night at which fire officials urged residents to be ready to evacuate if the fire continues to grow.
So far, the flames have destroyed five buildings and scorched 233,522 acres of ponderosa pine forest. No serious injuries have been reported. The blaze nearly doubled in size between Saturday and Monday.
About 2,700 to 3,000 people are believed to have fled Alpine and Nutrioso late last week and headed to larger towns for shelter, Gov. Jan Brewer said.
Roughly 2,500 firefighters, including many from several western states and as far away as New York, are working to contain the wildfire, fire information officer Peter Frenzen said.
A ridge of high pressure carried the haze to central Iowa, said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Denver. The smoke was visible in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.