Thousands evacuated in Arizona as wildfires scorch U.S. Southwest

PHOENIX (Reuters) – Over 2,000 people were evacuated from three large wildfires in Arizona on Thursday as dry conditions and gusty winds whipped blazes across the U.S. Southwest.

Over 1,500 residents fled small communities in mountains about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, as a wildfire grew to an area larger than the city of Detroit overnight, fire officials reported.

Firefighters battling the Bush Fire faced gusting winds, low relative humidity and triple-digit temperatures as flames leaped through ponderosa pine, piñon and juniper in the Tonto National Forest.

The fire, which began with a vehicle blaze, was the largest of 37 fires burning in the United States at 114,941 acres (46,515 hectares) and already the seventh largest in Arizona history, according to National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and National Weather Service (NWS) data.

“We have hotter temperatures approaching,” said Marvin Percha, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Phoenix, forecasting above-average temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) by Monday.

Around a dozen other fires burned in Arizona, which also faced a record spike in coronavirus cases this week.

The Mangum Fire had blackened 56,780 acres (22,980 hectares) in the Kaibab National Forest around 40 miles (65 km) north of the Grand Canyon, forcing 230 people to leave their homes. Four hundred homes were evacuated for the Bighorn Fire north of Tucson, which had burned 23,892 acres (9,669 hectares).

Large fires have been contained in California, Colorado and Utah this week, but a string of smaller blazes continue to burn.

In southwestern Colorado, a young bear was rescued on Tuesday after its paws were badly burned in a blaze west of Durango, Colorado, Parks and Wildlife said in a statement.

Much of California remained under a “red flag warning” for the kind of erratic gusty winds that have caused a plague of “megafires” of over 100,000 acres (40,470 hectares)in recent years.

Across the United States, the area of land torched by fires year to date was 865,575 acres (350,285 hectares), nearly double that of 2019, the NIFC reported.

Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Jonathan Oatis