Fire Crews Battles Blazes Across Southwest

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) -- Fire crews continued trying to extinguish a string of blazes that covered southwestern Utah in a black fog and threatened hundreds of homes amid high winds and hot, dry conditions.

Flames up to 10 feet high were visible Saturday from Interstate 15 just north of St. George before the fire eventually jumped the road and forced its closure.

Residents of Gunlock, about 260 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, were told to leave Saturday after the largest fire in the area _ which had consumed 59,000 acres _ edged to within four miles. Firefighters were battling winds up to 25 miles per hour and several other smaller fires sparked by lightning that kept popping up nearby.

Elsewhere, firefighters continued to battle blazes in California, Arizona and Nevada that have already consumed more than 200,000 acres in recent days.

The region had an unusually wet spring and late snow melt, providing plenty of fuel as vegetation dried out in 90-degree June temperatures.

''When it gets in that high grass, it's just like a blowtorch,'' said Gary Elliott, of the National Interagency Fire Center.

About 400 firefighters were working on the ground in Utah, aided by four heavy air tankers, six small single engine airplanes and three helicopters. Emergency response officials said 64 of Gunlock's 112 residents had evacuated their homes.

Hyrum Smith, who runs a cattle ranch near Gunlock, said he was waiting to see if the fire got any closer before leaving his land.

''Nobody knows what it's going to do so we're just kind of watching it hour by hour here,'' he said. ''They're taking precautions and asking people to evacuate, which is the smart thing to do. But it would have to cross some pretty rugged area to get to the town.''

Also Saturday, firefighters near Kelso, Calif., struggled to surround a wildfire that had burned 65,200 acres in the rugged Mojave National Preserve, which includes historic mines and sites with ancient Indian pictographs.

The blaze has destroyed five homes and two cabins built in the late 1800s, while several dozen other homes were threatened with strong winds expected Saturday. The fire was fueled by grass, sagebrush, juniper and pinyon pine that had grown unusually dense after last winter's abundant rainfall.

The fire was only 15 percent contained Saturday, Ranger Linda Slater said.

A brush and grass fire that has charred 79,000 acres in Arizona was about 20 percent contained Saturday after turning away from an upscale community northeast of Phoenix. Evacuees began returning home Friday.

Arizona fire officials were concerned about a threat of more thunderstorms that could fan flames and generate lightning.

In Nevada, a wildfire raging in the mountains southwest of the Las Vegas Strip grew to over 24,000 acres Saturday, prompting the closure of a state highway that leads to Death Valley National Park.

The fire was one of at least 21 blazes that have scorched more than 91,000 acres in relatively remote areas of southern Nevada since Wednesday.

''One of the biggest problems is the fuel we have out there,'' said fire spokesman Joe Colwell. ''Everybody was thinking, 'Wow we had a good winter, it might ease the drought.' But what it did was allow a lot of things to grow.''


Associated Press Writer Christina Almeida contributed to this report from Las Vegas.

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