Progress made in Arizona wildfires
- The Wallow fire has scorched 443,989 acres in eastern Arizona
- Officials say the blaze is 10% contained
- A commander says residents in Springerville and Eagar can return home "at their own risk"
- Arizona's worst wildfire burned 468,638 acres in 2002
(CNN) -- The evacuated residents of Springerville and Eager can go home, but it could take days for crews battling one of the worst wildfires in Arizona history to allow inhabitants of three other communities to join them, officials say.
Jerome MacDonald, operations chief for the Southwest Interagency Incident Management team, told reporters late Sunday that it could take up to three days for the town of Nutrioso to be declared safe enough for its residents to return home.
Residents of Alpine and Greer, which lost dozens of homes, cabins and outbuildings to the so-called Wallow Fire, may have to wait five days to return home, MacDonald said.
The 16-day-old blaze in eastern Arizona was 10% contained, fire officials said Sunday night, up from 6% late Saturday, even as the wildfire inched closer to becoming the worst fire in the state's history.
The second-largest blaze has scorched 443,989 acres, firefighters said -- an area bigger than most of the largest cities in the United States. It is also 24,649 acres shy of matching the Rodeo/Chediski wildfire of 2002, Arizona's biggest.
Yet fire officials are upbeat about their progress in shutting down the wildfire. The fire broke out May 29 in the Apache National Forest.
"Everything is holding, compared to what we've been dealing with just two days ago," MacDonald said. "We're feeling a lot more confident. We turned a corner."
The decision to allow Springerville and Eager residents to return to their homes came with a warning about lingering smoke that could be a health hazard for those with respiratory problems. Officials urged residents to do some Internet research on the potential smoke hazard before deciding to come home.
Vicki Walker of Eagar has already made up her mind, according to her husband, Kelvin. She, her daughter and grandson are leaving Phoenix for home Monday morning, Kelvin Walker told CNN.
"She's elated to be getting back this soon," Walker said.
When the evacuation order was issued six days ago, Kelvin Walker opted to stay behind. He did so, in part, because he wanted to keep an eye on the family's two-acre homestead. However, the main reason he didn't evacuate with his family was because his elderly aunt and uncle refused to budge, and he felt compelled to stay and look after them.
"It was really strange," Walker said. "If you chose to stay rather than evacuate, you had to sign a waiver and say you would not leave your property."
Walker didn't stay home. He ventured out into the ghost town, not to disobey but to help out, he said.
Walker said he took training to become a runner for firefighters on the front lines. Among them is his 26-year-old son, Kyran, who is a seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, Walker said.
"He was one of the first responders. He's been working 12 to 16 to 18 hours a day since the fire started," Walker said. "I stayed home and fed him every night. I think he took it (the fire) fairly personal."
So did Walker's neighbors. Before evacuation, many left signs in the front yards in support of the firefighters.
"The signs said things like 'We love you. We appreciate you. Be safe!'" Walker said.
On Sunday, according to CNN affiliate KNXV, a flashing sign posted on the road into Springerville read, "We missed you. Welcome home."
CNN's Phil Gast and journalist Craig Johnson contributed to this report.
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