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Hundreds flee, 40 homes torched in smaller Ariz. fire

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

More areas near a southern Arizona city were evacuated on Wednesday after a fire there torched 40 homes overnight and moved towards heavier populated neighborhoods. The blaze heading towards Sierra Vista was much smaller than Arizona's massive Wallow fire but has already surpassed it in terms of property destroyed.

It was not clear how many residents were evacuating Wednesday, but around 1,000 fled Tuesday as the Monument fire raced through a canyon, destroying or heavily damaging 40 homes as it moved towards the city of 40,000.

"I have never seen the entire mountain on fire before," evacuee Jan Guy was quoted by the Sierra Vista Herald as saying.

The fire, which started Sunday, is one of dozens testing fire crews from Arizona to Florida. Nearly 400 firefighters are at the Monument fire alone.

Nationwide, 11 new large wildfires were reported over the last day, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The states with the most large wildfires are Texas (13), Florida, (11), Arizona (4) and New Mexico (4).

At Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, crews worked to contain a fire that started Monday and quickly grew to 25,000 acres. Progress was made in protecting nearby White's City.

In northeastern New Mexico, a wildfire fanned by high winds has forced hundreds of people from their homes near the Colorado border. The blaze near Raton was burning on both sides of Interstate 25, closing the highway and sending summer motorists on lengthy detours.

The fire has destroyed or damaged nine structures in New Mexico, including two houses. One cabin has burned in Colorado.

In Texas, meanwhile, state officials were calling 2011 an unprecedented fire season.

"2011 as it stands is a record year, and it stands to be even more so," by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying. "There's no relief in sight — it's only going to get worse."

The recent fires across the state haven't threatened much property, but 460 homes were lost earlier this year in a single fire at Possum Kingdom State Park.

In Florida, fires in the Everglades and Collier County created smoky skies in Miami and Broward County this week. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on Monday due to more than 300 wildfires burning across the state.

Campfire caused largest blaze? In eastern Arizona, meanwhile, investigators at the Wallow fire focused on two people whose campfire might have started the massive blaze over Memorial Day weekend.

Area residents had mixed feelings about how hard officials should go after those responsible.

"It's done," said Reed Schmidlin, 61, who was evacuated from his Springerville home for two weeks. "There's not a lot you can do about it."

He said prosecuting those responsible would just add to the fire's cost.

The fire has burned more than 747 square miles and destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins. The largest fire in Arizona history, it was 20 percent contained.

In Luna, N.M., just across the Arizona state line, evacuation plans were in place for the roughly 200 residents. Crews have been working to protect the town for days, hacking down brush, using chain saws to cut trees and setting small fires to burn anything that approaching flames could use as fuel.

About 2,400 people who live in several Arizona resort communities in the forest remained evacuated from their homes.

Residents of the mountain town of Nutrioso were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday morning, and fire officials said evacuation orders for the picturesque hamlets of Alpine and Greer might be lifted in several days.

Greer, considered the jewel of eastern Arizona's summer havens, lost more than 20 homes and a couple dozen outbuildings as flames moved into the valley last week.

The huge blaze in Arizona was made worse by drought and the extremely thick forest, the result of a century of fire suppression that allowed additional tree growth in the world's largest ponderosa pine forest. Fires that would typically scorch only grasses and small trees on the forest floor across the West now leap into the crowns and skip across miles of terrain through the treetops.

Arizona's largest fire had been the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 732 square miles but destroyed far more buildings — 491.

Although the fire is enormous, other U.S. blazes between 1997 and 2009 have been much larger.

The biggest was a 2004 blaze in Alaska that burned more than 2,000 square miles. The largest in the continental U.S. were a 2006 Texas blaze that consumed 1,417 square miles, followed by a 2007 Idaho fire that burned 1,018 square miles.