Investigators question two people in Arizona wildfire cause

June 16, 2011

By William M. Welch, USA TODAY

Investigators were questioning two “persons of interest” in the search for a cause of the massive Arizona wildfire that had consumed nearly 750 square miles of national forest and created hazardous air quality in parts of the Southwest, federal fire officials said Wednesday.

Officials were not releasing details nor were they calling the two people suspects in causing the wildfire, now the largest in state history. The fire spilled into neighboringNew Mexico and sent soot, smoke and ash over several states.

Fire task force spokesman John Helmich said investigators suspect “the likely cause is an escaped camp fire,” and were questioning two people, possibly camping, who were believed in the area when it began May 29.

“The investigation is ongoing,” he said.

Firefighters have achieved 20% containment of the fire, which tore rapidly through tinder-dry ponderosa pine forests, and reported it had burned 478,452 acres, or 747.5 square miles.

The fire has destroyed 32 homes and four commercial buildings, the fire task force reported, and forced evacuation of thousands of residents. There were 4,656 firefighters working on the blaze.

Extreme dry, windy and hot conditions helped the fire spread and consume vegetation.

“We have very, very low relative humidity and low fuel moistures and high winds, said fire task force spokesman Terry Stemmler. “The next three or four days are going to be critical.”

Evacuated residents of Nutrioso were allowed to return to their homes as the threat to the town lessened, Stemmler said.

The fire, which is the largest of several wildfires raging across Arizona, created air quality problems over a wide area, said Mark Shaffer, communications director for the state Department of Environmental Quality. He said levels of tiny microscoping particles have reached hazardous levels in eastern Arizona, particlarly at night when winds drop.

“On Monday we had eight straght hours of hazardous readings,” he said.

The dirty air has moved eastward and created problems in Albequerque and parts of western New Mexico.

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