Pinetop, Arizona – The gusty winds that have been fueling a vast wildfire in eastern Arizona slowed somewhat on Thursday, allowing firefighters to make some headway against the blaze, which has already 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 Obama called Gov. Jan Brewer to pledge federal help and express his concern for those affected.
“The wind is dying down and that’s good,” Ms. Brewer said during a tour of a high school that has been turned into an evacuation center. “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 already sent smoke billowing through many surrounding states, could reach many, many more.
El Paso Electric, which provides power to southern New Mexico and West Texas, said that 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. If the lines are damaged by the fire, company officials said, El Paso Electric could have to use rolling blackouts as a conservation measure.
On Thursday, the company said that fire lines were holding around the transmission lines and that it was more hopeful. Soot and ash also posed a danger to electrical equipment.
In Las Cruces, N.M., which gets all of its power from El Paso Electric, officials were bracing for the possibility of blackouts. With temperatures reaching the 90s, city officials were preparing to set up cooling stations complete with generators, fans and portable air-conditioners.
Despite the work of more than 3,000 firefighters and the expenditure of an estimated $15 million, the blaze, known as the Wallow Fire, was zero percent contained on Thursday morning, meaning that it continued to have the potential to extend in any direction. Across the New Mexico line, residents eyed the fire bearing down on them warily.
Nadine Handy, who owns two assisted living centers and six child-care centers in Las Cruces, said that with the possibility of rolling blackouts, staff members at the facilities have been told to ready generators and emergency lights.
“I feel like we’re doing everything we can,” she said. “We’re even doing a little hoping. Hoping that this fire will go out.”
Jeanne Lambert, who lives in the tiny community of Quemado, about 40 miles from the border, has been getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning to serve breakfast to firefighters at the Largo Cafe. Ms. Lambert, 71, said she had seen a lot of fires come through in nearly half a century of living there, but nothing like this one.
“We’ve had horrible smoke,” she said. “We’ve never had smoke like this.”
Mike Duvall, New Mexico’s secretary for homeland security and emergency management, was in the town of Reserve near the Arizona border, where Gov. Susana Martinez had marshaled 145 members of the National Guard to assist with evacuations, should they become necessary.
“I’m moderately concerned,” Mr. Duvall said, noting that the fire was within half a mile of the state line but that firefighters were working to protect the transmission lines.
Marc Lacey reported from Pinetop, and Dan Frosch from Denver.