Arizona wildfires: Five fires mark start of 2012 wildfire season (+video)

Arizona fire crews spent the weekend fighting five wildfires – including two in Tonto National Forest – covering more than four square miles. 

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    A fire blazes in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, near Payson, Arizona, on May 12, 2012. The fire grew to more than three-square miles as air tankers and helicopters assist ground crews in beating back flames.
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Crews across Arizona spent the weekend fighting several wildfires, including one south of Payson that had grown to more than 4 square miles and another north of Phoenix that led authorities to order evacuations in a historic mining community.

A total of five wildfires in the state had charred more than 9 square miles by late Sunday, the Arizona Republic reported. The fires follow a recent warning from state land managers that hot May temperatures and dry vegetation have created a very high fire risk in some areas.

"Everything between the (Mogollon) Rim is ready to burn now from Kingman to Douglas," said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the state Game and Fish Department who worked 34 years as a firefighter with the National Forest Service.

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The Sunflower fire, the state's biggest, was first spotted Saturday morning in Tonto National Forest. It had burned about 2,700 acres, or 4 square miles, in an area about 20 miles south of Payson as hotshot crews, air tankers and helicopters worked to contain it Sunday.

Billowing smoke from that fire and another to the west near Crown King could be seen in Phoenix.

The Gladiator Fire about 4 miles north of Crown King ignited on private land next to the Prescott National Forest in the Bradshaw Mountains. Yavapai County authorities said Sunday night that the town was not directly threatened by the wind-stoked fire, but a mandatory evacuation order remained in place.

Sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said in a release that most of the town's 350 residents had chosen to remain in town despite the order.

The fire damaged two buildings and was burning on about 300 acres, he said. There were no estimates on containment.

Authorities set up a command center in front of the Crown King General Store, said store owner Carol Boles, who was making sandwiches for firefighters Sunday evening.

"Some of these guys didn't get their dinner before they were called up here," she said.

The fire overtook a portion of Crown King Road, making the road to the mountain town inaccessible, a Yavapai County Sheriff's Office statement said. Deputies were directing residents to leave the area on other roads, and authorities have set up a shelter at Mayer High School.

About 280 people have been assigned to the Sunflower blaze along with six air tankers and four helicopters. Another 14 engines were ordered.

The fire was moving in a northeasterly direction and primarily toward a wilderness area, Tonto National Forest spokesman David Albo said. No structures were threatened and the fire hasn't prompted any evacuation orders. Authorities have yet to determine a suspected cause of the fire.

Crews also battled the Bull Flat fire, which was thought to have been sparked by a lightning strike south of the Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

The fire burned brush, grass and dead and down fuels on the reservation and in the Tonto Forest. Flames were most active on its northeastern flank, but no structures were threatened.

By Sunday afternoon, the fire had charred more than 480 acres. It was about 35 percent contained.

East of Prescott, crews were able to contain a 30-acre blaze that had briefly forced the evacuation of 20 homes in the Cherry Creek subdivision. The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office said residents were allowed to return Saturday evening.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
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