Some evacuees return to Arizona homes as fires sweep US West

By BOB CHRISTIE and ASTRID GALVAN

Associated Press

PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. v– Authorities expect to allow more evacuated residents to go home and to reopen a major route through an Arizona community that barely escaped destruction when a massive wildfire swept into town.

The fire, which is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Phoenix, triggered evacuations for thousands of residents in a half-dozen communities and came close to consuming the town of Mayer.

The incident commander got a big cheer at a community meeting Thursday night when he announced crews had secured lines around about 43 percent of the blaze, which has consumed about 45 square miles (116.55 sq. kilometers) of brush and forest. Still, John Pierson warned several hundred people that the fire could become more active and cause more damage.

“We’re still not out of the woods yet,” Pierson told those gathered in a church in Prescott Valley.

The wind-whipped flames jumped State Route 69 on Wednesday after roaring into Mayer. They consumed some homes, but somehow aircraft dropping retardant and crews on the ground kept it from destroying the entire town.

Mayer’s 1,400 residents were allowed back in Thursday, but a few thousand others remained in shelters, with friends or in hotels. State Route 69 is expected to re-open Friday.

Beside permanent residents, the U.S. Forest Service ordered campgrounds to empty of the thousands of people visiting for the popular Fourth of July weekend.

Authorities also called in school buses to drive 1,400 children from area summer camps run by churches, the YMCA and other groups.

The camps weren’t directly threatened, but Yavapai County Supervisor Tom Thurman said officials didn’t want to take risks.

“For the kids, we’re just being proactive,” Thurman said.

More than 800 firefighters were battling the blaze burning south of Prescott, which draws a mix of desert dwellers escaping the heat, retirees and visitors to its famed Old West-themed Whiskey Row lined with bars.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey toured the fire zone Thursday, thanking firefighters, chatting with people staying at a shelter and promising that fighting the fire was the state’s No. 1 priority.

The local sheriff said he thought all hope was lost as the massive fire approached the larger town of Dewey-Humboldt.