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Firefighters in aircraft and on the ground battled the second serious wildfire to threaten the Flagstaff area in two days Sunday, prompting officials to urge hundreds of residents to flee as flames crept within 500 yards of some homes.
Officials said the fast-spreading fire erupted in this forested city's northern outskirts Sunday morning and burned across 7 square miles of forest land by evening, sending a huge plume of smoke over parts of the region.
Strong winds fueled the flames. "The higher winds definitely played a key role in the extreme behavior of the fire today and it will continue tomorrow," said city spokeswoman Stephanie Smith.
Residents of hundreds of homes were urged to evacuate because of the blaze, dubbed the Schultz fire. Some heeded the call but it was unclear how many; others watched as bright red and orange flames climbed over a mountain.
Fire spokesman Eric Neitzel said around midnight that the fire had moderated somewhat but was still strong. He said that earlier in the evening, flames came within 500 yards of a scattering of homes beneath the mountain, spurring firefighters to build a containment line. No structures have burned.
Five helicopters and eight air tankers dropped fire suppression chemicals and 300 firefighters battled the blaze. The fire will be turned over to a federal management team Monday, Smith said, allowing for even more resources.
The city and Coconino County declared states of emergency, and officials closed U.S. 89, a key route to Grand Canyon National Park about 75 miles to the north.
Also Sunday, evacuation orders for a fire the emerged Saturday in southeastern Flagstaff were lifted after officials reported it 25 percent contained.
There have been no reports of any major injuries in the fires but there was a scare earlier in the day with a report that several hikers were missing in the burning region. Smith said all the hikers were safe and accounted for late Sunday evening.
A third smaller wildfire that broke out near Interstate 40 in western Flagstaff was suppressed within a matter of hours, Smith said. That fire was caused by a vehicle that spread into a wooded area.
The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents at a Flagstaff middle school but few were staying overnight.
Jennifer Whitehair was having lunch in town when she heard her neighborhood was being evacuated. She rushed home seeing flames in the near distance and had 15 minutes to grab pictures, a Navajo rug and a painting, "a few things that mean something," she said.
She later stationed herself at a nearby gas station watching as the flames made their way over a mountain and within several hundred feet of her home. She said she wished she had sprayed water on her roof or dug a trench on her 2.5-acre property.
"When something like this happens, it makes you thankful for the things you do have," she said. "The material things seem less important, although in one sense it's your life."
Kyle Lathrop was planting flowers in his backyard and initially thought the fire would bypass his community. But when he saw a neighbor loading horses and talked to others, he said he knew it was time to go. He packed up some important possessions, his 7-year-old dog, Madline and headed to a shelter to check in but planned to stay elsewhere.
"That's always a risk, part of the pleasure of living in the semi-rural area," he said. "You get the view, but you have the risk (of fire)."
Meanwhile, residents of the 116 homes evacuated because of the southeastern Flagstaff fire were being allowed to return after crews worked to establish a perimeter around the blaze.
A California man was arrested on suspicion of starting the Hardy fire by leaving behind hot coals at a campsite in a wooded area about two miles from downtown Flagstaff.
"As far as we understand, this was not a deliberate act. It was a careless act," city spokeswoman Kimberly Ott said.
Fires also had crews busy Sunday near Williams, Ariz., and in Colorado and New Mexico.
Fire danger is considered high to extreme in Arizona, which has seen two wildfires burn more than 3,000 acres each in the last month.
"The Southwest had a wet winter and then the spring turned dry," said Rick Ochoa of the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. That combination has "increased the fire potential quite a bit in the Southwest," he said.
Relief isn't expected until next month, when summer monsoons generally start bringing rain to the region.
This program aired on June 21, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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