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Wildfires burn across western U.S.

Firefighters compete for manpower and equipment


Forestry and Timber
Forest Service

(CNN) -- Wildfires, fed by drought, raced across parts of the western United States on Wednesday, devouring acreage in New Mexico, Colorado, California and Arizona.

In Oak Creek Canyon, two miles northeast of Sedona, Arizona, the Brins Fire grew in size overnight by more than a third, from 1,770 acres to 2,450 acres, with just 5 percent containment, said fire information officer Pam Ritchie.

Much of the increase was caused by fires that were set intentionally in an effort to reduce the fuel available.

A view from a helicopter 11,000 feet up showed the canyon filled with smoke. In places, a gray haze was pierced by glowing rivulets of fire nestled deep within crevices -- but unreachable by tanker planes.

All 500 homes in the canyon have been evacuated and electricity to the area has been cut, officials said.

At a town meeting in Sedona, Paul Broyles, incident commander of the Great Basin Incident Management Team, told area residents whose homes are in threatened areas to prepare for a possible evacuation order.

Residents of evacuated subdivisions on the fire's southern end were to be allowed to return to their homes "on a limited basis" after 5 p.m., he said.

Broyles said firefighters were trying to keep the blaze from jumping State Highway 89, which travels north-south.

"We've been quite successful so far in keeping it west of Highway 89," he said early in the day. "But there's always the potential it will spot across to the east side, and then we're really off to the races."

By late morning, the fire had reached the road's edge in some places, and it was continuing to press northward.

Unhalted, it could eventually threaten Flagstaff, northern Arizona's largest city some 25 miles away, Broyles said. "The potential is certainly there."

Still, no homes or structures had been lost.

"We want to keep it that way," he added.

Broyles said he was "not so optimistic" about the fate of Oak Creek Canyon, where steep terrain is nearly impenetrable.

"We can't get crews in there," Broyles said. He predicted it would remain closed, "I'm guessing several days."

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said help is coming from all levels of government -- municipal, county, state and federal. She said she issued a state declaration of emergency that allowed her to activate a 211 system, whereby residents can get current information by calling that number.

In southern Colorado, a 9,000-acre fire just west of Pueblo led officials to evacuate 280 structures, said Karl Brauneis, a fire information officer for the Rocky Mountain Incident Command Team. Scrub pine burst into flames as the fire advanced, unleashing torrents of thick, white smoke.

Brauneis said the situation was improving.

"Today we're getting a break in the weather," he said, citing Wednesday's cooler temperatures and higher humidity.

The area has been parched by drought, he said. But nature was not the firefighters' only problem: competition from firefighters seeking to draw from a limited pool of resources for other fires makes the job harder.

"That's tough this early in the fire season," Brauneis said.

In California's Los Padres National Forest, about five miles west of Cuyama, a 10,000-acre fire was threatening oil fields, natural gas lines and commercial resources.

The fire, which had damaged at least five structures, was 35 percent contained, said Jim Pastino with the U.S. Forest Service.

A thick layer of smoke covered the foothills of the Sierra Madre as helicopters dumped buckets of water on the flames.

Pastino said the biggest concern is that it will spread over a ridge into the San Rafael Wilderness, which firefighters would have a tough time reaching, because there are no roads in the area.

In Gila National Forest, in southwestern New Mexico, a 24,300-acre fire was zero percent contained 17 miles northeast of Glenwood, according to the National Fire Information Center.

So far this year, wildfires have swept across 3,123,689 acres nationwide, more than four times last year's total for the same time period, according to the information center.

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