May 19, 2012 / 1:10 AM / 7 years ago

Arizona towns at risk as wildfires hit U.S. Southwest

PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona wildfire threatened two more towns on Friday, with high winds on the way, even as firefighters made progress against the largest of a string of blazes spreading across the U.S. Southwest.

More than 1,000 firefighters in Arizona and Colorado were battling five major blazes that have consumed more than 55 square miles (142 square km) of ponderosa forest, brush and grass, and a new blaze erupted in Utah on Thursday.

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

The Gladiator Fire in central Arizona, which has already destroyed four structures and forced the evacuation of about 350 residents of the old mining town of Crown King earlier in the week, was threatening two more tiny communities.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Debbie Maneely said residents of Battle Flat and Pine Flat, which have fewer than 50 homes combined, have been alerted to evacuate within 24 hours.

Maneely said the situation was “really critical,” with predictions of winds blowing 40 to 50 miles per hour (64 to 80 km per hour), and that more crews and equipment were being called in to fight the blaze, which has burned about 15 square miles in the Prescott National Forest since Sunday.

“We’re praying for the firefighters’ safety,” said Lynn Ray, the manager of an emergency shelter for evacuees at a school in Mayer, Arizona, where billowing gray-black smoke from the Gladiator Fire was clearly visible.

“People who have homes are anxious to get back but have no idea right now as to when they’ll be able to get back ... It’s a wait-and-see situation,” she added.


Meanwhile, crews made slow progress against the biggest of the Arizona fires, which has scorched 22.6 square miles in the Tonto National Forest, about 40 miles north of Phoenix, since it started on May 12.

The Sunflower Fire was 15 percent contained on Friday, up from 10 percent a day earlier, Fire information officer Rick Hartigan of the Arizona Central West Zone Incident Management team said.

In Colorado, authorities cited a 56-year-old camper who admitted to accidentally starting the Hewlett Fire, which has burned for five days and charred more than 12 square miles in the Roosevelt National Forest.

James Weber told authorities his alcohol-fueled camp stove ignited the blaze, which some 300 firefighters are struggling to contain in low humidity, hot temperatures and rugged terrain. He tried unsuccessfully to douse the flames before fleeing the scene.

Weber later contacted authorities, admitting he started the fire, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver said. He faces a $300 fine for starting a fire on federal land without a permit, although prosecutors said they also would pursue him for restitution costs.

More than a dozen homes were placed on a mandatory evacuation order, although none have been lost.

Governor John Hickenlooper declared the fire a disaster emergency on Friday, activating the Colorado National Guard and freeing up $3 million to assist in fire suppression efforts.

In Utah about 100 firefighters were battling the 500-acre (202-hectare) 73 Fire, which began on a state road about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

By midday, the blaze was about 50 percent contained, with light rain and cool temperatures aiding firefighters, although expected high winds for the afternoon could pose a threat. No homes or structures have been threatened.

Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver and Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City; Writing by Mike Saucier and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Xavier Briand and Lisa Shumaker

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