Giant wildfire near Phoenix continues to grow as Arizona coronavirus cases spike

"Between the terrain and the wind, it's been a really challenging fire," a fire official said.

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By Tim Stelloh

A massive wildfire just northeast of Phoenix continued to burn through thousands of acres of desert and forestland Wednesday, triggering evacuations as Arizona is also dealing with a spike in coronavirus cases.

The so-called Bush Fire in Tonto National Forest has grown to nearly 90,000 acres — up from 64,000 on Tuesday — and was only 5 percent contained, according to InciWeb, the U.S. Forest Service's wildfire information site.

The blaze began Saturday with a car fire. Amid mostly sustained winds of 25 mph to 30 mph, it quickly spread through terrain that includes Sonoran desert and canyon lands to ponderosa pine forest, said Dee Hines, a spokesman for the team fighting the fire.

"It's kind of like a chimney, the way the wind goes up the canyons," he said. "Between the terrain and the wind, it's been a really challenging fire."

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No injuries have been reported. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office issued "go" notices to the communities of Sunflower and Apache Lake on Tuesday, telling residents to grab emergency items and leave. Residents in the communities of Tonto Basin and Punkin Center were also evacuated, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

Hines said 1,576 people were in the evacuation area, although it wasn't immediately clear how many people had left. The American Red Cross has opened three evacuation centers, in Tucson, Payson and Miami, according to spokeswoman Greta Gustafson. There were 26 people among them, although the facilities aren't meant for overnight stays.

A man watches a portion of the Bush fire burn through the Tonto National Forest from Apache Junction, Ariz., on June 16, 2020.Matt York / AP

Gustafson said volunteers are conducting health screenings and providing masks for evacuees to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Arizona, which has recorded nearly 40,000 cases and roughly 1,200 deaths, according to an NBC News tally, had its single largest daily increase in new cases this week. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the state added 2,400 new cases Tuesday.

Images of the blaze showed towering flames and a wall of smoke billowing over the Mazatzal Mountains. Hines said the smoke was blowing away from Phoenix toward the Four Corners region, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet.

The National Weather Service said the fire was the seventh largest in Arizona history. The largest — the Wallow Fire — scorched more than 522,000 acres in 2011.

CORRECTION (June 18, 2020, 12:35 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the fire burning in Tonto National Forest. It is the Bush Fire, not the Brush Fire.