Fed by Dry Brush, Gladiator Fire Continues to Burn

PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona wildfire whipped up by winds and dry conditions threatened to trigger more evacuations on Sunday, just as firefighters were nearly done battling the biggest of four blazes in the state.

Fires in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado have forced the evacuation of several small towns and torched more than 65 square miles (168 square km) of forest, brush and grass in the U.S. Southwest.

The Arizona blazes were the first major wildfires in the state this year after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 fires consumed more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square km), according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The so-called Gladiator Fire was the greatest concern for firefighters Sunday. After getting a respite from winds on Saturday, they faced a combination of dry vegetation and higher winds on Sunday and the days ahead.

"We're expecting more extreme fire behavior today. The fuel is dry and conditions are dangerous," said Michelle Fidler, a spokeswoman for the departments fighting the fire.

More evacuations were possible, she said.

The Gladiator fire, named after an old mine in the area, destroyed four structures and forced about 350 residents of the old mining town of Crown King to leave their homes earlier in the week. It also prompted the evacuation of three tiny and remote Arizona communities on Friday.

The fire, which was 10 percent contained, has burned more than 20 square miles (51 square km).

The largest of the four Arizona fires, the Sunflower Fire, was all but extinguished and resources were being assigned to the other fires, said Dee Hines, a spokeswoman for the agencies fighting that fire.

Helicopters were prepared if needed to return to the Sunflower Fire but otherwise operations were limited to patrolling and cleanup.

Firefighters received help on Saturday when winds died down and allowed them to make progress against a blaze that consumed 26 square miles (67 square kilometers) in the Tonto National Forest, about 40 miles north of Phoenix.

Arizona's smaller Bull Flat and Elwood fires were mostly contained on Sunday.

In New Mexico, two fires were burning in dry grass and brush in the Gila Wilderness. One, called the lightning-caused Whitewater Fire, has consumed about 10 square miles (26 square km) of what a fire information officer called "steep, nasty, rugged terrain." No homes were immediately threatened, she said.

Another lightning-induced blaze, the Baldy Fire, was burning in another part of Gila Wilderness and burned 1.5 square miles (3.8 square km).

In Colorado, rain helped crews gain the upper hand on a 12-square mile (31 square km) wildfire burning in the Roosevelt National Forest, fire officials said on Sunday. The Hewlett Fire was 85 percent contained, incident commander Todd Richardson said.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Bill Trott)

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