Crews battle to contain raging Arizona wildfires

Reuters News
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Posted: May 18, 2012 12:19 PM
Crews battle to contain raging Arizona wildfires

By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Crews with hand tools battled to contain wind-whipped Arizona wildfires on Wednesday that have raced across more than 30 square miles of parched ponderosa forest, brush and grassland, consuming several buildings and threatening a small town.

The Sunflower Fire, the largest of at least four blazes in central and eastern Arizona, has burned nearly 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) in the Tonto National Forest, about 40 miles north of Phoenix, fire officials said.

Days after the weekend eruption of the blaze, fire crews had managed to carve containment lines around just 10 percent of its perimeter.

This week's conflagrations marked the first major wildfires of the year in Arizona, after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 recorded blazes swallowed more than 1,500 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The fires left a translucent veil of gray-brown smoke over the northeast Phoenix valley, obscuring views of nearby highlands where the blazes were burning.

About 350 residents of Crown King in central Arizona remained under evacuation orders after another blaze, the fast-moving Gladiator Fire, burned nearly 9 square miles (22 square kilometers) of ponderosa pine, brush and chaparral in the Prescott National Forest and destroyed several buildings.

Fanned by strong winds and dry weather, the Gladiator Fire also threatened homes in the Horsethief Basin area, as well as U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, lookout towers and power lines in the rugged, mountainous terrain, officials said. It was 5 percent contained.

"The terrain is extremely rugged and steep, and it's making it more difficult to fight the fire," said Michael King, a spokesman for the team fighting the fire.

"The crews are not driving up to it and squirting water. They are getting down there and grubbing out fire lines with hand tools and chainsaws," he added.

More than 1,000 firefighters battled to curtail the two blazes, aided by dozens of fire engines, water-dropping helicopters and air tankers.

Citing drought conditions, heat and "increased fire dangers," the Tonto National Forest was placed under tight fire restrictions on Wednesday.

On the San Carlos Apache reservation, in eastern Arizona, the Elwood Fire, caused by lightning, has charred more than 2 square miles (about 5 square kilometers) of ponderosa pine, juniper and oak since the weekend.

The Bull Flat Fire on the Fort Apache reservation, meanwhile, burned nearly 3 square miles (about 8 square kilometers) of brush and grassland. It is up to 45 percent contained.

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.

U.S. 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.

(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)