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In Arizona, firefighters in a race with the wind

Firefighters raced to shore up lines of defense before flame-whipping gusts sweep through Arizona’s White Mountains, where the Wallow fire has charred more than 400,000 acres of pine and spruce and pushed thousands of people out of their homes.

Aided by a second day of light winds, more than 3,000 firefighters on Friday attacked the conflagration, which has destroyed at least 29 homes, the majority in the resort town of Greer, and threatened 5,200 more.

A major part of the blaze was reportedly 5% contained Friday morning, as a grayish haze coated the sky, but the kind of stiff winds that fanned it across the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and toward the New Mexico border were expected to return by mid-Saturday.

Photos: Fires rage in Arizona

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“We need to button everything up as much as we can, so that when Saturday hits, we can hold on to it,” said Jim Whittington, a spokesman for the firefighting operation. Authorities planned to spend much of Friday strengthening fire lines near mountain towns and burning new defensive lines.

Still, the favorable weather allowed officials to tell residents of Springerville and Eagar, the largest evacuated towns, that they might be able to return to their homes this weekend. The announcement late Thursday was met with whistles and applause at a community meeting in Lakeside.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re getting closer,” incident commander Joe Reinarz told the crowd at a high school that’s serving as an evacuation center.

On Friday, the center was bustling with evacuees, who pawed through folding tables of shampoo, toothbrushes, Danielle Steel novels, juice drinks and Ladies Home Journal magazines. Some had been sleeping in the gymnasium, a maze of cots and gray blankets. Gloria Lowenthal, 66, and her family had pitched tents at a nearby reservoir.

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Lowenthal, a retired jewelry store owner, fled her home in Eagar on Wednesday with her son and his wife; their two children; her black lab, Sadie; and her cat Sunday, who later wandered off. Lowenthal didn’t have enough carriers for her 13 other cats, so she left them behind with 40 pounds of food and a child’s plastic pool of water.

On Friday, Lowenthal, carrying a tote bag with jeans and a pink T-shirt she’d grabbed from a donation pile, watched “Dr. Phil” on a TV at the high school while waiting to shower.

“I’ve been praying that my house is going to be there and that I’ll be back in it real soon,” she said. “But I can’t get excited until I know for sure.”

She had reason to be wary. The second-largest blaze in state history has bedeviled firefighters since it was sparked May 29 in the Bear Wallow Wilderness area, possibly by a campfire. Only Thursday did gusts die down enough for firefighters to slow the flames’ spread.

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That night, Whittington addressed reporters in front of a map that depicted the Wallow fire as a multi-tentacled red mass. For the first time, some of the perimeter was shaded black, meaning flames there had been hemmed in.

“Psychologically, to get some black on the map is a huge deal,” he said. “We’ve been reacting to this fire since the beginning, and this is the first day we’ve really been able to go after it.”

Photos: Fires rage in Arizona

ashley.powers@latimes.com


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