Telegraph fire burns more than 80,000 acres to become 10th largest in Arizona history

Firefighters in Arizona worked through the night battling the Telegraph fire, a wildfire that started east of Phoenix on Friday and has burned more than 80,800 acres (33,000 hectares).

Officials said on Wednesday the fire was 21% contained, but straddled two counties, had forced thousands of evacuations in rural towns, and closed almost every major highway out of the area.

The fire – now the 10th largest in state history – is believed to be human-caused, but the flames have been fueled by dry, windy conditions and temperatures reaching into the 90s and 100s.

Arizona, like much of the American west, is facing severe drought conditions and the environment is so dry that new ignitions have even been sparked by fire crews fighting the fire.

“Even our own fire equipment is starting fires,” said Dean McAlister, a fire information officer, during his Tuesday night briefing. “The blades and the tracks of the [heavy equipment] sparking against the fuels have actually created some fires along the fire line.” He cautioned residents to avoid the area for safety reasons and to ensure additional vehicles would not accidentally add new flare-ups.

A Tuesday night report indicated that fire managers efforts were hampered by members of the public who entered closed areas and that an unauthorized vehicle got stuck at the fire line.

“Public incursions not only endanger firefighters, but detract from their primary mission: to suppress the fire,” officials said in the report. “Even with the efforts to protect all values at risk, fire managers confirmed that two residences and three outbuildings were destroyed by the fire.”

One of the five structures burned was a home owned by the Arizona house speaker Rusty Bowers, who toured the gutted property on Tuesday. The home was not his primary residence but a family retreat, said Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for house Republicans.

Despite the difficult conditions, McAlister said crews were beginning to feel optimistic about containing the fire. “Things are looking fairly good for the situation we’ve got, with the weather we’ve got,” McAlister said.

Meanwhile, thousands will remain under evacuation orders.

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 US 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 on 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 at shelters in Globe and Mesa on Monday.

Several miles east of the wildfire, the smaller Mescal fire reached 33% containment on Wednesday. That fire has burned more than 70,000 acres (28,500 hectares), mostly desert brush, oak and grass. It was first reported 2 June south-east of Globe. The cause is still under investigation.

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