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Residents of two Arizona towns allowed to return home

| Monday, June 13, 2011

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. -- Firefighters on Sunday expressed the first real sense of hope that they were making progress in their battle against a huge eastern Arizona wildfire burning since May.

Officials began allowing about 7,000 residents to return home to two towns that had been threatened by the blaze.

"We've been praying every day to come home," Valarina Walker said while chatting with other returning locals outside a convenience store in Springerville.

The bed of her red pickup was overflowing with boxes of photo albums and family heirlooms.

"Just took what couldn't be replaced, left the rest behind," Walker said crying. "I'm just so happy and excited to be home. We thank God for those firefighters."

Fire crews remained in Springerville and the nearby town of Eagar, guarding against flare-ups, but Apache County Sheriff's Cmdr. Webb Hogle said residents could return home because the blaze was "no longer a threat to the citizens."

On the road into downtown Springerville, a working class town nestled near the forest edge, a flashing sign read "We missed you, welcome home."

"I just cried when I drove past that sign," said Jane Finch, who had just returned to Eagar and had a tearful reunion with her husband, who stayed behind to keep the Circle K open for firefighters.

Meanwhile, firefighters stopped short of jubilation Sunday morning but said they were finally gaining ground against the entire 693-square-mile inferno that was running along the New Mexico state line, even as the winds picked up considerably and containment remained at just 6 percent.

"Everything is holding," Fire Operations Chief Jerome Macdonald said. "Compared to what we've been dealing with just two days ago ... we're feeling a lot more confident. We turned a corner."

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