Firefighters in Arizona Struggle to Ensure U.S. Western Wildfire Doesn't Get Closer to Towns

PHOENIX (AP) -- A lightning-sparked wildfire in rugged central Arizona has grown to nearly 173,000 acres (69,200 hectares) and residents in at least three communities surrounded by pine forest fear they could be in harm's way.

The blaze was burning about 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of the mountain communities of Pine and Strawberry _ 19 kilometers (12 miles) from the point when evacuations there may be necessary.

By Wednesday night, the fire was also less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of Black Canyon City, a community of about 4,500 residents north of Phoenix, but wasn't considered an imminent threat to structures there.

On the eastern flank, firefighters worked to stop flames from jumping over the Verde River. Authorities were concerned that if it crossed the river, it could push into a canyon and race into Pine and Strawberry, which are just three miles apart and have fewer than 5,000 year-round residents.

The fire hadn't crossed the river by Wednesday night but concern remained since the ponderosa pine forest surrounding the towns has been hard hit by tree-killing beetles in recent years, said Vinnie Picard, another fire spokesman.

Picard said the threat of wildfires is something residents of Pine and Strawberry, located about 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Phoenix, are getting used to having around.

''This is an issue they seem to be dealing with a lot up there,'' Picard said. ''But it's hard to stay calm, cool and collected when the sky is filled with smoke and they have ash covering their property.''

The blaze began June 21 as two lightning-started fires and destroyed 11 homes near Cave Creek, just north of Phoenix.

The National Interagency Fire Center said Wednesday that 22 active large fires had burned across more than 362,000 (905,000 acres) in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

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