Weather Helps in Battle Against Arizona Wildfires

Improving weather helped firefighters in Arizona make progress on Saturday against wildfires that have charred more than 65 square miles.


PHOENIX (Reuters) - Improving weather helped firefighters in Arizona make progress on Saturday against wildfires that have charred more than 65 square miles of forest, brush and grass in the U.S. Southwest and forced the evacuation of several small towns.

More than 2,000 firefighters were battling five blazes in Arizona and Colorado from the ground and air. Meanwhile, a small blaze in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness area ballooned in size as wind whipped the flames.

Fire crews battling the Sunflower Fire, the biggest of the Arizona blazes, were aided as winds died down in weather conditions that fire incident spokeswoman Karen Grubbs described as "awesome."

The blaze, which has consumed 26 square miles in the Tonto National Forest, about 40 miles north of Phoenix, was about one-third contained on Saturday, up from 15 percent a day earlier, and had cooled substantially.

"The fire's real quiet and kind of creeping along right now," Grubbs said of the blaze that erupted on May 12, adding that crews were "cleaning up" and expanding control lines from 30 feet to 100 feet.

Firefighters whose battle against the Gladiator Fire in central Arizona was hampered by strong winds on Friday got a respite on Saturday as winds slowed to under 10 miles per hour.

That fire, which destroyed four structures and forced about 350 residents of the old mining town of Crown King to leave their homes earlier in the week, prompted the evacuation of three tiny and remote Arizona communities on Friday.

The fire, which was 10 percent contained, has so far burnt more than 20 square miles. Local media reported that the fire had also knocked a Scottsdale radio station off the air for 19 hours after its backup system failed.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Debbie Maneely said crews were hoping winds would die down further, and that excavators would be used to knock down trees to make a fire break and starve the blaze of fuel at a county road and along a highway.

Progress was also cited in the smaller Elwood and Bull Flat fires, with Bull Flat 80 percent contained.

The Arizona blazes were the first major wildfires in the state this year, after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 blazes consumed more than 1,500 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Colorado, cooler weather moved in overnight, allowing firefighters to make "good progress" on a 12-square-mile blaze burning in rugged terrain in the Roosevelt National Forest, northwest of Fort Collins, fire managers said.

"The lower temperatures and higher humidity has really helped us and we now have it 45 percent contained," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Reghan Cloudman said, adding that about a quarter-inch of rain had fallen in the burn area by midday.

Evacuation orders for more than a dozen homes in the area have been lifted. Federal prosecutors on Friday cited a 56-year-old camper for accidentally sparking the blaze when his alcohol-fueled camp stove ignited tinder-dry vegetation in the forest.

In New Mexico, a lightning-caused wildfire burning in dry grass and brush in the Gila Wilderness doubled in size to encompass more than 3 square miles, and was being monitored by fire managers.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)