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Many flee Arizona towns as wildfire grows in scenic canyon popular with hikers, campers

  • Arizona Wildfires-1.jpg

    The Slide Fire burns near 89 A south of Flagstaff, Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Evacuations of surrounding areas took place late afternoon Tuesday. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle) (The Associated Press)

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    Dick Summitt, of Kachina Village in northern Arizona, leaves a community meeting on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 where authorities told residents to prepare to evacuate because of a wildfire. Hundreds of firefighters poured into the area to battle the wind-whipped blaze. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca) (The Associated Press)

  • Arizona Wildfires-3.jpg

    The Slide Fire burns near 89 A south of Flagstaff, Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Evacuations of surrounding areas took place late afternoon Tuesday. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle) (The Associated Press)

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    Ken Patrick, of Kachina Village in northern Arizona, takes a break from packing while smoke from a wildfire hovers overhead. Hundreds of firefighters poured into the area on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, to battle the wind-whipped blaze. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca) (The Associated Press)

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    In this photo released by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, flames from a wildfire rise over a ridge behind the popular Slide Rock State Park Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, Ariz., Tuesday, May 20, 2014. About 200 firefighters and other personnel are already assigned to the 450-acre Slide Fire, including five Hotshot crews, Coconino National Forest officials said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Arizona Department of Public Safety, Carrick Cook) (The Associated Press)

As smoke billowed over their homes, residents threatened by a growing Arizona wildfire filled their vehicles with clothes, heirlooms, medication, legal documents and family pictures. Many of them collectively gasped when they were told at a community meeting that a wildfire was approaching.

"I'm a Korean War veteran. There's not much that worries me," said 82-year-old Dick Summit, who decided to leave town and arranged to stay with a friend in nearby Flagstaff.

The blaze burning in a canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff dramatically increased in size Wednesday, serving as a reminder of the dangers facing Arizona amid a drought that has left its forests tinder-dry.

The fire grew to an estimated 7 square miles, or about 4,500 acres, and erratic and gusty winds grounded air tankers that were brought in to fight the fire. Authorities warned about 3,200 residents in two communities between Sedona and Flagstaff that they need to be ready to evacuate if the fire makes another advance.

"It's pretty bad, we're all ready," said Ken Patrick, a Flagstaff city worker whose home was among those threatened by the fire. "I don't know if we're going to wait for them to tell us to get out of here. It's a no-brainer."

Elsewhere in this village of about 1,400 off Interstate 17, residents were clearing brush away from their homes and hosing down the landscape. Search and rescue crews with the Coconino County Sheriff's Office were going door to door while pre-evacuation warnings were in place checking to see which residents were home and which weren't. For those who they knew were safe, they placed a yellow ribbon on their mailboxes.

Just south, hundreds of firefighters battled the fire that began Tuesday afternoon and was likely human caused.

The fire broke out at the start of the tourist season and closed the main road between Sedona and Flagstaff — two cities that attract many visitors in summer months. The fire is burning near Slide Rock State Park, a popular recreation area because of its natural rock water slides.

Sophie Lwin, of Peoria, said she had relatives from the Los Angeles area coming in for a weekend at the Butterfly Garden Inn, which had to evacuate because of the fire. She said the area is her favorite destination, and she and her husband visit the Sedona area at least five times a year.

"It's Memorial Day weekend. It's going to be so hard and so expensive to get anything anywhere else," she said.

About 500 firefighters and other personnel are already assigned to the fire, including 15 Hotshot crews, Coconino National Forest officials said Wednesday.

There were no reports so far of injuries or structures burned.

The fire forced the evacuations of 100 threatened businesses and homes in a 2-mile stretch north of the state park, and 15 people stayed at a shelter in Flagstaff.

As the fire moved up the canyon's steep walls, it sent up large amounts of smoke and ash and created hazy conditions in Flagstaff, about 15 miles from the blaze.

The blaze presented several challenges for firefighters, including steep terrain, thick pine forest, gusting winds and the drought conditions, said Bill Morse, a Flagstaff Fire Department captain and a spokesman for firefighting managers.

But Morse said calming fire conditions in Southern California have freed up extra crews to fight the Arizona fire.

"Fortunately the fires in San Diego have calmed down enough for the resources to be released here," Morse said.

The evacuees included Nathan and Mickella Westerfield, young honeymooners from Phoenix who arrived at a campground in the canyon Tuesday afternoon. They were headed into Sedona for dinner when they passed the fire, which was burning shrubs and trees in a small valley visible from the highway.

As other passers-by stopped to take pictures of the fire, a firefighter told the couple they couldn't return to their campground to retrieve their newly purchased camping gear and other belongings, Nathan Westerfield said.

"He told us, 'no, we're evacuating,'" he said. "We literally have the clothes on our backs."

Red Cross spokeswoman Trudy Thompson Rice said most of the 15 people who stayed Tuesday night at the shelter at a Flagstaff school were campers. The Westerfields were among those who spent the night at the shelter.

The fire comes less than a year after a blaze in nearby Prescott killed 19 firefighters who were part of a Hotshot crew.

A separate wildfire burned 200 acres and closed Interstate 17 near Cordes Junction in both directions for more than four hours late Tuesday. The interstate is the main route between the Phoenix area and northern Arizona.

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Galvan and Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report from Phoenix.

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