PHOENIX (Reuters) - Hundreds of firefighters battled several Arizona wildfires on Monday that charred more than 5,000 acres of parched Ponderosa forest, brush and grassland over the weekend, consuming half a dozen buildings and threatening a small town, authorities said.
The Sunflower Fire, the largest of at least four blazes in central and eastern Arizona, burned 3,100 acres in the Tonto National Forest, about 40 miles north of Phoenix, destroying two homes, a business and two outbuildings over the weekend, the Southwest Coordination Center said.
About 350 residents in the nearby community of Crown King were under mandatory evacuation on Monday after the human-caused Gladiator Fire burned 600 acres of ponderosa pine, brush and chaparral in the Prescott National Forest and destroyed three buildings.
An evacuation center was set up at a high school in nearby Mayer, Arizona, although only three people had taken shelter there on Monday, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office said.
“Most residents have elected to stay,” spokesman Dwight D‘Evelyn told Reuters. “We’re taking it hour by hour. Should (danger) become imminent, we’ll get folks out quickly.”
Fanned by strong and erratic winds and dry weather, the Gladiator Fire also threatened forest service campgrounds, lookout towers and power lines in the area, the forest service said in a statement.
On the San Carlos Apache reservation, in eastern Arizona, the Elwood Fire, caused by lightning, charred more than 1,100 acres of Ponderosa pine, juniper and oak over the weekend. The Bull Flat Fire on the Fort Apache reservation, meanwhile, burned 575 acres brush and grassland and threatened a fish hatchery.
The blazes were the first major wildfires of the season in Arizona this year, after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 recorded blazes together swallowed more than 1,500 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Last year’s so-called Wallow Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history, started in late May and torched about 840 square miles of prime forest land in eastern Arizona.
Senator John McCain ignited a furor when he suggested last June that the blaze might have been started by illegal immigrants. Two Arizona cousins, later pleaded guilty to starting that fire when they left a campfire unattended.
(This version of the story officially corrects size of Gladiator Fire in paragraph 3)
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Doina Chiacu