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Arizona wildfire forces evacuation of hundreds

A 1,500-acre wildfire breached northern Arizona’s scenic Oak Creek Canyon early Tuesday, leaving crews to try and stop flames from reaching hundreds of homes and scorching the surrounding wilderness.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Emergency sirens sounded Tuesday as a growing 1,500-acre wildfire moved downhill and threatened homes at the bottom of northern Arizona’s scenic Oak Creek Canyon.

The flames were less than a half mile from the highway at the canyon bottom, and power to the homes and businesses was being shut down, said Katherine Sanchez Meador, a fire information officer with the Coconino National Forest.

Some residents had remained in the canyon despite the mandatory evacuation, and the sirens were “letting them know it’s time to get out of there,” Meador said. The flames were three-quarters of a mile from the nearest house.

Crews also were battling wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and California.

‘It’s going to be a tough battle’
The Arizona blaze, only 5 percent contained, was near hundreds of homes clustered among dry manzanita and juniper trees. Its movement down the side of the canyon reversed officials’ earlier optimism.

“Anything can happen,” Meador said. “Our crews work wonders and the effort is extraordinary, but depending on the weather and the winds, it’s going to be a tough battle.”

The fire, which officials believe began Sunday at a transient camp, forced the evacuation of about 400 homes and businesses in narrow Oak Creek Canyon and about 100 homes in the smaller canyons on the rugged north side of Sedona, a town about 90 miles north of Phoenix surrounded by red-hued cliffs that draw builders of expensive homes and thousands of tourists.

At least 11 helicopters and air tankers were available Tuesday to help ground crews, said Joe Reinarz, commander of the team fighting the fire. More than 450 firefighters were on the ground, and crews were installing sprinklers and clearing brush around the homes in an effort to protect them. No buildings had been lost by Tuesday.

If the fire burns down to the two-lane scenic highway along the canyon bottom, which it was nearing, crews hope to make a stand there. Most homes are on the opposite side of the highway, Reinarz said.

Thousands of acres burn
A high temperature of about 100 was forecast Tuesday for Sedona, with very low humidity and wind of 10 to 20 mph.

In neighboring New Mexico, four fires started by lightning had burned about 40,000 acres in the tinder-dry Gila National Forest in the southwestern part of the state. One blaze charred nearly 12,000 acres and had threatened 150 homes in the Lake Roberts area. Residents were allowed to return Tuesday, said fire information officer Brian Morris.

A 14,000-acre fire northeast of Glenwood, N.M., in Catron County, prompted evacuations of about 30 cabins, Morris said.

In southern Colorado, crews braced for more dry, windy weather Tuesday as they confronted a wildfire that exploded across 8,900 acres about 10 miles northeast of Fort Garland, triggering the evacuation of 270 homes in two counties. No houses had been destroyed.

“We can’t get out in front of this thing; it’s moving like a freight train,” fire information officer Steve Segin said.

A California brush fire spread over 6,000 acres of hilly terrain in Los Padres National Forest. No houses were threatened, but two sheds and three trailers were destroyed, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Joe Pasinato said.

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.