Jun 20, 2011 10:08 AM

Lighter winds to help firefighters on Monument Fire

PHOENIX (AP) - Lighter winds should give firefighters in southern Arizona a break Monday after a weekend in which thousands of residents fled their homes as powerful winds pushed the flames across roads and containment lines and toward populated areas.

The Monument fire just south of the city of Sierra Vista, Ariz., was one of several chewing through dry brush and timber in the Arizona and New Mexico where fire crews have been dogged for days by hot, windy weather.

About 3,000 people from 1,700 homes were evacuated Sunday as the blaze - burning for a week - picked up speed with winds gusted up to 60 mph, Cochise County sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas said late Sunday night.

"Winds pushed fire across Highway 92, making (it) run so fast and so hot that the danger to citizens in the path was significant," she told The Associated Press.

The flames raced down a mountain and into a heavily populated area, forcing crews to abandon their lines and set up in new spots.

"The fire crews are doing an amazing job, trying to get in front of it," she said.

Sunday's evacuations brought the total number to about 10,000 people from 4,300 homes forced to flee flames of the Monument fire, she said.

Some residences were destroyed Sunday, adding to the 44 already reported, but fire officials still don't have an exact number, Capas said. Among the destroyed structures was a popular Mexican restaurant. There have been no serious injuries.

She said evacuees have been staying with friends and relatives, at three evacuation shelters, and at local inns.

"This is horrible. This is a nightmare," Debbie Schmidlin told the Arizona Daily Star. She said she was evacuated twice in the past week from homes east and west of Highway 92.

"If this fire gets there, I'm leaving Arizona," she said as she watched from behind police lines two miles north of her home.

Mario Morales, who has a mobile home on land he owns on the east side of 92, was philosophical. "You just gotta accept it," he told the newspaper. "There is no stopping this monster."

Winds had diminished by late Sunday and were projected to reach just 10 mph Monday.

"If that prediction holds, it will be a big benefit for firefighters," she said.

Before the winds spread the flames earlier in the day, the blaze was reported 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres or nearly 33 square miles.

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