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Southwest fire crews brace for return of dangerous winds

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA (AP) – Firefighters are bracing for the return of ferocious winds in the Southwest after a brief reprieve allowed them to attack flames from the air for the first time in days as a half-dozen large wildfires continue to grow in Arizona and New Mexico.

More than 500 firefighters were manning fire lines in the two states and more help was on the way yesterday, when the largest type of management team is scheduled to take command of resources at one of the biggest, most dangerous fires near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Spirits were lifted on Thursday as helicopters were able to start dropping water on that blaze for the first time. It has burned more than 32-square miles, forced evacuations of 765 homes and destroyed at least two dozen structures since it broke out last Sunday.

Aerial attacks also resumed in northern New Mexico, where at least one airtanker was able to join the effort northeast of Santa Fe.

Sheriff’s deputies called for additional evacuations on Thursday of scattered homes and closed some roads at a big fire burning in a rural area southeast of Taos, New Mexico, where no structure damage has been reported.

A wind-driven wildfire dances around a home on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. PHOTO: AP

But fire officials and weather forecasters across the region warn the worst may be yet to come.

“There is high confidence that a widespread extreme and catastrophic fire weather event will occur,” Santa Fe National Forest officials said late Thursday.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Flagstaff’s Coconino County. The declaration clears the way for state funding for evacuations, shelter, repairs and other expenses. However, the money can’t be used to reimburse home and business owners for losses.

About 30 structures have been destroyed, but it’s still unclear how many were homes, the county sheriff’s office said. On Thursday, firefighters fanned out across blackened landscape in Arizona’s high country, digging into the ground to put out smouldering tree stumps and roots as helicopters buzzed overhead with buckets of water to drop on a massive blaze.

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