Rural Arizona residents wait as wildfire spreads uncontained

Firefighters in Arizona are fighting to gain a foothold into a massive wildfire, one of two that has forced thousands of evacuations in rural towns and closed almost every major highway out of the area

PHOENIX -- Firefighters in Arizona were fighting Tuesday to gain a foothold into a massive wildfire, one of two that has forced thousands of evacuations in rural towns and closed almost every major highway out of the area.

The so-called Telegraph Fire, straddling two counties, has burned 112 square miles (290 square kilometers) and is at zero containment. The blaze was first reported Friday south of Superior in Pinal County, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Phoenix.

Residents in neighboring Gila County, which includes Globe, Miami and smaller communities, have been in various stages of the evacuation process. The town of Miami is among those under an evacuation order.

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers confirmed that a family home he owns in the woods southeast of the Globe-Miami area burned down overnight. He toured the gutted property Tuesday. The home was not his primary residence but a family retreat, said Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for House Republicans. Bowers, who lives in Mesa, would go there weekly and often do his artwork.

At least 2,500 homes in Gila County have been evacuated, said Carl Melford, the county emergency manager. He estimated that there are twice as many households who are in “set” mode with bags packed just in case.

“Over the past three years, we’ve had some pretty extreme fire seasons,” said Melford, who has bags at his front door. “We’ve become very familiar with the process, with what it takes to evacuate a community. But this is the largest evacuation to date.”

Becky Stephenson, 37, whose Globe home sits on a hill near the U.S. Highway 60, is feet away from a zone under “set” status. Still, she decided to have essentials, including her pet parrot, Buddy, and his travel cage, ready to go.

Watching flames climb trees Monday night from her home as the fire made its way into the Pinal Mountains and create an eerie orange glow was surreal, Stephenson said.

“Honestly, it just makes me feel like I can’t wait till they get it under control and I can go out and start helping them revegetate,” said Stephenson, who is a plant biologist. “It's just really sad to think about all of the torched plants and all of animals that lost their habitat during breeding season.”

Meanwhile, Superior residents remain in “set” mode. But about 400 people in nearby Top-Of-The-World have been evacuated, said Lauren Reimer, a Pinal County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.

Officials with the American Red Cross say 90 residents in total stayed Monday at shelters in Globe and Mesa.

Nearly 750 firefighters are working on the blaze, which gained momentum in the past few days thanks to gusty winds and low humidity. The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team, the highest tier, is conducting some controlled fires and dropping flame retardant by air in other areas.

Dean McAlister, a spokesman for the fire's incident command center, said crews were having success as of Tuesday afternoon holding the fire at bay in some places. They are closely monitoring a constructed fire line that on the fire's east side.

“The intent is to try to create a catcher’s mitt to trap the fire as it continues to move east, and our intent is to try to stop the fire before it gets any further into the Globe area,” McAlister said.

The fire was human-caused. But fire officials have not shared further details.

Several miles east of the wildfire, the smaller Mescal Fire was at 23% containment Tuesday. Fire officials lifted evacuation orders for residents of the community of San Carlos and in the areas of Soda Canyon and Coyote Flats. But the community of East El Capitan was still on mandatory evacuation.

The fire has burned nearly 105 square miles (13 square kilometers) — mostly desert brush, oak and grass. It was first reported June 2 southeast of Globe.

The cause is still under investigation.

Meanwhile, in northern Arizona a much smaller wildfire closed a stretch of U.S. Highway 180 on Tuesday. The fire, only 2 square miles (5 square kilometers), was reported Monday 23 miles (37 kilometers) northwest of Flagstaff. The cause is unknown. ————

Associated Press writers Bob Christie and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.