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Arizona fire expected to 'get up and run'

Rodeo Fire
A house in Pinedale, Arizona is consumed by the Rodeo fire Thursday night.  

SHOW LOW, Arizona (CNN) -- A massive wildfire threatened Friday to draw in a smaller blaze and create a gargantuan burn in east-central Arizona that could blacken more than 300,000 acres, firefighters said.

Winds of 40 mph whipped the 120,000-acre Rodeo fire, already labeled Arizona's worst ever by Gov. Jane Dee Hull, into a frenzy and pushed it to the northeast.

"The fire's going to raise its head and get up and run today," said fire information officer Jim Paxon. "We are very much not in control. Nature is in control."

Paxon said officials revised their estimate of the fire's size up from 85,000 acres to 120,000 acres after high-altitude infrared photography showed a greater area burning than seen during a visual estimate done earlier by experts in a helicopter closer to the ground.

Officials feared winds could shift to the east and drive the Rodeo fire toward more populated areas, Paxon said. The blaze has already forced the evacuation of several thousand people.

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And behind the fire, about 8 miles west, a smaller blaze burned -- the 2,600-acre Chediski fire. Paxon said fire behavior specialists used time-lapse photography to watch Chediski's smoke plume being drawn into Rodeo's -- and gave the fires an 80 percent chance of merging in the next three days.

"If that happens, it's going to burn up a lot more timber," he said. "We're looking at a 300,000-acre fire. ... (The fire line) is going to be 100 miles around."

More than 650 firefighters were battling the Rodeo fire, Paxon said, and officials hope to have 800 in place by midnight. Fire team commander Larry Humphrey said earlier that widespread wildfires throughout the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions were limiting firefighting resources.

"There are just so many fires and not enough firefighters," he said.

Winds, extremely dry conditions and high temperatures conspired to create 200- to 400-foot-high flames in the Rodeo fire Thursday, forcing officials to temporarily pull firefighters off the line. Those same conditions were likely to keep the fire going for some time, Humphrey said.

"I think we're going to be fighting this fire for at least a month," he said, "and that may be an optimistic viewpoint."

"If it started raining tomorrow, we'd be out of here in a few days," Humphrey continued. "But that's not going to happen. There's no rain in the forecast for at least two weeks."

Hopes for new direction

With no rain in sight, firefighters at Arizona's Rodeo fire are concerned that the Chediski fire is just 8 miles away.
With no rain in sight, firefighters at Arizona's Rodeo fire are concerned that the Chediski fire is just 8 miles away.  

Firefighters were hoping the fire would burn in a northerly direction and reach the eastern Arizona flatlands, where fewer fuel sources and more accessible terrain might make containment easier. But the increasing winds threatened to propel the blaze eastward along the northern edge of the Apache tribe reservation, toward more towns with thousands more residents.

No injuries have been reported from the Rodeo fire.

The Chediski fire has forced thousands more to flee the Heber and Overgaard communities. Paxon said firefighters in that area were working on strengthening the fire line to keep the flames from those towns.

Thursday, the fast-moving Rodeo fire roared through the tiny town of Pinedale, which had been evacuated a day earlier. Paxon said at least 15 homes and 20 other structures were destroyed in that community.

"And there's still active fire today in Pinedale," he said.

Officials had no word on what caused the Rodeo blaze, which began Wednesday. Investigators have sealed the scene of origin. They said the Chediski blaze was started by a lost hiker who was trying to catch the attention of a helicopter flying overhead.


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