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Arizona fires spread; new blazes sprout

GREER, Ariz., June 8 (UPI) -- Firefighters struggled Wednesday to contain the Wallow Fire, which scorched about 389,000 acres in Arizona and threatened New Mexico, officials said.

While the focus was on the Wallow Fire and other major blazes roaring across the state, Coconino Forest spokesman Brady Smith said seven to nine fires that began simultaneously Wednesday afternoon near the Turkey Hills area about 8 miles east of downtown Flagstaff were suspicious.

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The Hill Fire, first reported about 4:30 p.m., was threatening at least one home, officials said. The amount of acreage burned was not known. Four firefighting crews, 10 engines and several water tenders were working the fire, and five heavy air tankers had been ordered to respond.

KTTU-TV, Tucson, reported Coronado National Forest officials had decided that at noon Thursday all 2 million acres of the Coronado will close.

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The Tucson Sentinel reported Sabino Canyon and Mount Lemmon also were being shut down because of fires.

The Wallow Fire had slowed somewhat overnight, with lower winds letting firefighters set a backburn outside Eagar and clear flammable brush from the area, a fire spokeswoman told The Arizona Republic Wednesday morning.

But the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Wednesday, expecting winds gusting to 35 mph and low humidity.

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Seven eastern Arizona communities were under evacuation orders by morning, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The fast-moving fire sent at least 5,700 fleeing their homes in eastern Arizona, including about 3,000 evacuees Tuesday, CNN reported Wednesday. Towns such as Greer and Alpine were nearly empty. Sheriff's deputies began evacuating Eagar Tuesday and alerted residents in Springerville that they too may need to leave.

The Wallow Fire churning through Apache National Forest is now the second-largest blaze in Arizona history, records indicate. The largest fire, 2002's Rodeo-Chediski blaze, burned 468,638 acres.

The Wallow Fire belched dense smoke visible from space and thick enough to reduce visibility to less than a mile in places, the National Weather Service said. Smoke from the fire was reported drifting in Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and southern Minnesota.

The Arizona blaze and its smoke threatened to move into New Mexico, disrupting flights and prompting an air quality alert, authorities said. New Mexico officials told residents of Luna to be prepared to evacuate, a spokeswoman for the Incident Management Team overseeing firefighting efforts said.

Wind gusts tossed embers onto dry vegetation, stoking the fire that destroyed at least 10 structures and threatened 350 more Tuesday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The weather and the region's steep terrain combined to thwart a counterattack by 2,100 firefighters, 20 helicopters and eight bulldozers, authorities said.

The National Interagency Fire Center said low humidity and high winds would increase fire risks across the southwestern United States, including Arizona, New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and west Texas.

"The fire moves so fast. It's the same as holding a matchstick upside down," said Jim Hyland, a spokesman for the firefighting operation, which has drawn crews from around the country.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

In Phoenix, Special Agent Thomas Brandon of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced Wednesday the May 10 fire that destroyed the historic Greer Lodge in Greer was arson, The White Mountain Independent reported.

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