Crews gain upper hand battling wildfires in Southwest

PHOENIX Mon May 21, 2012 3:35pm EDT

1 of 9. Firefighters prepare to use a helicopter to survey the Gladiator Fire in Cleator, Arizona May 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Fire crews gained a fragile upper hand against stubborn Arizona wildfires on Monday, but cautioned that tinder-dry conditions and high temperatures could jeopardize containment efforts in coming days.

Blazes in rugged, mountainous areas of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado have forced the evacuation of several small towns and torched more than 65 square miles (168 square km) of forest, brush and grass in the U.S. Southwest.

The Arizona blazes were the first major wildfires in the Grand Canyon state this year after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 fires consumed more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square km), according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

More than 1,100 firefighters made progress against the most dangerous of the state's blazes, the so-called Gladiator Fire, which has charred about 22 square miles (57 square kilometers) of ponderosa pine and brush some 40 miles north of Phoenix. It was 15 percent contained on Monday.

"We have chainsaw crews, we have people digging hand lines with shovels and rakes ... we have aircraft dropping ... retardant on the flames," said Dan Bastion, a spokesman with the fire incident team.

"We're making progress. The containment figures are inching up slowly, but today will be a challenging (day) ... because we have the potential for severe fire behavior because of the conditions," he said.

The blaze, which has cast a pall of grayish smoke over the northeast Phoenix valley over the past week, torched four buildings and forced the evacuation of about 350 residents of the old mining town of Crown King and three other tiny communities nearby.

Crews battling the largest of the four Arizona fires, the 25-square-mile (65 square kilometer) Sunflower Fire, succeeded in reinforcing control lines on Monday, although authorities cautioned that dead trees burning sporadically in the remote, rugged Tonto National Forest could lead to long-term fire operations and smoke in nearby communities.

Arizona's smaller Bull Flat and Elwood fires were mostly contained.

In New Mexico, crews said two lightning-caused fires in the Gila Wilderness grew gradually overnight. The Baldy Fire and Whitewater Fire have together consumed over 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) of steep, rugged terrain in mixed conifer. No homes were immediately threatened, authorities said.

In Colorado, crews had the 12-square mile (31 square km) Hewlett Fire burning in the Roosevelt National Forest almost completely contained, fire officials said on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

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