SEDONA, Ariz. – The commander of a crew battling a wildfire near Sedona called Thursday "a critical day" for stopping the blaze's advance, while in Colorado, cooler temperatures and higher humidity were expected to help crews fighting an 11,800-acre fire.
The 3,260-acre blaze just north of Sedona has forced the evacuation of roughly 460 homes and businesses. None has been lost, but officials warned that more homes could be in danger if crews can't stop the fire's northern advance.
If the blaze crosses the northern line crews are building and continues up the edge of Oak Creek Canyon, the next possible place to stop it is 2 1/2 miles to the north, said Paul Broyles, commander of the 700-member firefighting crew.
"Today's a critical day," Broyles said early Thursday. "I won't say it's a last ditch, but there's lot of potential. This is our good shot."
The fire was approaching Slide Rock State Park, a popular recreation spot that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
"Things are going well out there," said Larry Sears, a divisional commander. "Now we need to get to that north side and find a good place to hold it."
The blaze started Sunday in a camp used by transients and spread quickly, forcing evacuations in the canyon 90 miles north of Phoenix. The Forest Service is offering a reward up to $5,000 for information leading to a conviction of those responsible for the fire.
Mike Yeager has a home in the lushly forested canyon, whose walls are tinted crimson by iron oxide.
"It makes me so mad. I just want to spit," he said. "These people started a fire in the most beautiful place in the world."
In Colorado, favorable weather conditions helped firefighters hoping to expand containment lines around a wildfire that has forced residents from 300 homes. No houses have been lost, but U.S. 160, a major thoroughfare, remained closed for a fourth day about 150 miles south of Denver.
The same weather that was helping keep the flames in check also kept the highway closed, fire information officer Steve Segin said. Fire managers need to burn off nearby vegetation that could ignite should the wildfire return that way, but the weather was too damp to keep a backfire burning.
"We're desperately trying to do that to get the highway open," Segin said.
Citing dangerously dry conditions, Gov. Bill Owens issued an order Wednesday banning open burning and fireworks on all state-owned land and urged local officials to do the same.
In New Mexico, heat, wind and rugged terrain slowed efforts to control fires that have burned nearly 70,000 acres of forest.
The largest blaze, burning across about 33,250 acres in southwestern New Mexico, continued to threaten cabins in the Willow Creek area, fire officials warned.
In California, firefighters battled a blaze of more than 13,000 acres that had stopped short of a critical ridgeline in Los Padres National Forest. No homes were threatened as the fire burned away from the small town of New Cuyama, about 45 miles east of Santa Maria.
Wildfires have charred nearly 3.2 million acres nationwide so far this year, well ahead of the average of just over 1 million acres by this time, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. Huge grass fires that swept Texas and Oklahoma this spring account for much of the increase.