Number of evacuees rises to near 300 in Arizona brush fire


PEEPLES VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) — A brush fire pushed evacuations to about 300 as more people fled homes Thursday near Yarnell, an Arizona community where a 2013 blaze killed 19 members of an elite firefighting crew.

The flames broke out Wednesday, leading about 250 people to evacuate their residences close to Yarnell, about 60 miles northwest of Phoenix.

Authorities ordered additional evacuations Thursday, including about 30 homes in the Peeples Valley Area, as they feared the fire might make its way down to Highway 89.

That brought the total number of evacuees to near 300 in the area, but authorities remained confident the fire would not grow out of control and containment could still happen by sometime early next week.

“It’s still a situation where we want to err on the side of safety for residents,” said Mike Reichling, a state fire official. “We want to make sure that they are out of there just in case.”

The fire, which is believed to be human-caused, already has burned about 2 square mile of brush and grass.

Light winds of 5-10 mph Thursday were blowing flames away from Yarnell, said Dolores Garcia, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman.

Firefighters have a perimeter around 10 percent of the fire and the weather forecast calls for favorable conditions over the next several days, said RobRoy Williams, the incident commander. “We’re looking very good,” he said.

Yarnell resident Peggy Starcher left her home with her two dogs but wasn’t quite sure why she was being evacuated.

“They stopped, said there’s a fire and we go, ‘What fire?’ At that time it’s on top of the cell towers (on the mountaintops) and I’m grabbing animals and trying to think of what to grab and throw in the car and they said, ‘You got five minutes,'” Starcher said from a gas station in Peeples Valley, 4 miles north of Yarnell.

“I’m just glad my animals are safe, my home is safe and nobody lost any lives,” she said.

The Red Cross said 14 people spent Wednesday night at a shelter at a college in nearby Prescott.

Calm winds and cooler conditions with higher humidity overnight helped slow the fire, allowing firefighters to get some rest, Garcia said.

About 240 personnel, including six firefighter crews, were assigned to the blaze. They were supported by 20 fire engines and several aircraft.

There have been no reported injuries. No homes were reported destroyed but the fire burned three structures such as sheds.

Yarnell resident Shannon Smith, who lost her home in the 2013 fire, was one of the few on her street who decided not to follow mandatory evacuations this time around after seeing the fire was at least a mile away. Her car is packed just in case.

She said neighbors have been in constant contact and offered to help each other pack, ensure doors are locked and deliver food and water.

“That is just a beautiful aspect of tragedy, how close we as a community have grown and healed through what we all went through,” she said. “And this, I’m sure, is stirring it up for a lot of people.”

The 19 firefighters killed in June 2013 were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots trapped by flames in a canyon — the deadliest U.S. tragedy for wildland firefighters in several decades.

Officials said brush clearing and other preventative work done in the community since the 2013 fire helped firefighters keep the latest fire out of the town by connecting areas already cleared of brush with new fire lines and burnout areas.

Without that work, “we would not have been successful,” Williams said.

News video Thursday morning showed the fire burning in several areas of desert brush east and north of Yarnell with a large plume of smoke rising above the hills around the town.

A long reddish stain from fire retardant dropped by a large air tanker late Wednesday was visible between those areas and the town itself.

Helicopters were dipping in small ponds in the area Thursday, filling up with water and dumping it on the flames along the ridge tops.

A seven-mile stretch of State Route 89 through Yarnell was shut down because of the fire.

Williams said Thursday morning that the stretch of highway might be reopened Thursday afternoon, but Garcia said fire managers later decided to leave it closed through the heat of the day to avoid hindering the movement of firefighting equipment.

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Associated Press writers Paul Davenport and Walter Berry in Phoenix and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff contributed to this report.

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