Firefighters struggled Wednesday to stop a wildfire from jumping a highway in scenic Oak Creek Canyon and roaring into an area of evacuated homes and resorts.
Nearly 600 firefighters were on the lines Wednesday, backed by at least a dozen aircraft and nearly three dozen fire trucks, but the 2,585-acre blaze was only 7 percent contained in the steep, rugged terrain.
Flames had approached the two-lane highway that runs through the middle of the canyon, but crews were able to burn away fuel in its path, officials said Wednesday morning.
“We’ve kind of drawn some lines in the sand, and we’re going to be working hard to solidify them,” said Sedona Fire District Chief Matt Shobert. “It’s going to be hand-to-hand combat — blood, sweat and tears trying to fight the fire.”
The fire was approaching the area of Slide Rock State Park, a popular recreation spot that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
The blaze started Sunday in a camp used by transients and spread quickly, forcing the evacuation of about 460 homes and businesses in the canyon more than 90 miles north of Phoenix. The Forest Service is offering a reward up to $5,000 for information leading to a conviction of those responsible for the fire.
Mike Yeager has a home in the lushly forested canyon, whose walls are tinted crimson by iron oxide.
“It makes me so mad. I just want to spit,” he said. “These people started a fire in the most beautiful place in the world.”
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office said it would coordinate shuttles and give evacuated residents a few minutes to retrieve personal items.
Meanwhile, an evacuation order was lifted for 180 homes on the north side of Sedona. Some residents said they had already been back for days.
Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency Monday to activate the state’s 211 phone system, which provides people with information about natural disasters and other emergencies.
During a meeting Wednesday with about 250 evacuees, the governor praised firefighters and tried to reassure residents.
Oak Creek Canyon “is the jewel of Arizona,” said Napolitano, who toured the area by air. “We want to do everything we can do to save this area.”
In Colorado, a wildfire that forced the evacuation of more than 300 homes had grown to 11,800 acres. U.S. 160 through the area was closed Wednesday for a third day.
Winds had fallen and reversed direction, raising hope that the flames would be driven back to ground that had already burned, said fire information officer Crestine Martinez. Crews were allowing the fire, which was 30 percent contained, to burn itself out in uninhabited wilderness.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens toured the area Wednesday, then banned open burning and fireworks on all state-owned land and ordered the National Guard to prepare four helicopters for firefighting duty.
The blaze, ignited by lightning and reported Sunday, was near Fort Garland, about 150 miles south of Denver.
In New Mexico, heat, wind and rugged terrain slowed efforts to control fires that have burned nearly 70,000 acres of forest.
The largest blaze, burning across about 33,250 acres in southwestern New Mexico, continued to threaten cabins in the Willow Creek area, fire officials warned.
In Santa Maria, Calif., firefighters battled a 10,000-acre blaze that had stopped short of a critical ridgeline in Los Padres National Forest. No homes were threatened as the fire burned away from the small town of New Cuyama, about 45 miles east of Santa Maria.
Wildfires have charred more than 3.1 million acres nationwide so far this year, well ahead of the average of about 900,000 acres by this time, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. Huge grass fires that swept Texas and Oklahoma this spring account for much of the increase.