Arizona wildfire forces hundreds to evacuate |

Arizona wildfire forces hundreds to evacuate

A new wildfire burns at Shultz Pass between the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden Sunday, June 20, 2010, in Flagstaff, Ariz. The Timberline neighborhood is being evacuated and two other neighborhoods nearby are on standby. (AP Photo/Michele Legg)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The second wildfire to hit this forested city in two days grew to 3,000 acres Sunday, driving residents from hundreds of homes and prompting a search for some missing hikers.

Meanwhile, evacuation orders for the first fire, in southeastern Flagstaff, were lifted after fire officials reported it 30 percent contained. Earlier Sunday, a man was arrested on suspicion of causing that fire by dumping coals from a campfire on the ground, city spokeswoman Kimberly Ott said.

Authorities announced the news about the hikers and revised the number of evacuations for both wildfires at a Sunday evening press conference. They didn’t specify how many hikers were missing but said “two active searches” were under way.

Authorities also announced that a third fire was reported near Interstate 40 in western Flagstaff. They said that blaze was caused by a vehicle fire that spread into a wooded area, but there was no word on its size.

Ott said residents of hundreds of homes on 1,044 parcels just north of Flagstaff were being advised to leave because of the Shultz fire, which was reported Sunday morning and was spreading quickly.

Four helicopters and 300 firefighters were battling the blaze, and more crews were on the way, Ott said. Eight air tankers were ordered but had been grounded because of wind.

“There’s a pretty impressive towering column of smoke,” said Coconino National Forest spokeswoman Karen Malis-Clark.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter at a Flagstaff middle school for displaced residents.

Authorities knew of no buildings that had been burned. U.S. Route 89 northeast of the northern Arizona city of about 60,000 was closed because of smoke from the Shultz fire. Its cause was unknown.

Meanwhile, residents of the 116 homes evacuated because of the Hardy fire in southeastern Flagstaff were being allowed to return, Ott said. A California man was arrested on suspicion of starting the fire, which erupted Saturday, 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,” Ott said.

Randall Wayne Nicholson, 54, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of burning of a wildland, Ott said. Nicholson, whose hometown was not immediately available, was being held on a $2,500 bond at the Coconino County jail. It was unknown if he had an attorney.

The Hardy fire quickly spread up a hill and threatened homes in two neighborhoods. Crews worked overnight and Sunday to protect structures and establish a perimeter around the blaze.

Fires also had crews busy Sunday near Williams, Ariz., and in Colorado and New Mexico.

High winds and rugged terrain kept ground crews and aircraft from getting close to a wildfire in southern Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. The fire grew to 4,500 acres.

In New Mexico, crews were making progress on the South Fork fire, which had charred more than 11,150 acres in steep, inaccessible terrain in the Jemez Mountains.

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.

Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.

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