- Associated Press - Monday, June 21, 2010

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A fast-spreading wildfire swept across 7 square miles of land on the outskirts of this forested mountain city, threatening homes and prompting calls for hundreds of evacuations.

Firefighters worked through the night against a blaze that erupted Sunday morning and sent a huge plume of smoke over parts of the region.

Five helicopters and eight air tankers dropped fire suppression chemicals, and as 300 firefighters worked feverishly to contain the blaze.

A federal management team was taking over direction of the effort Monday, a move that will expand access to firefighting resources.

No serious injuries or damage to buildings has been reported in this blaze and a smaller one sparked Saturday that also spurred evacuations across town.

The city and Coconino County declared states of emergency, and officials closed U.S. 89, a key route to Grand Canyon National Park about 75 miles to the north.

Strong winds fueled the flames. “The higher winds definitely played a key role in the extreme behavior of the fire today, and it will continue tomorrow,” said city spokeswoman Stephanie Smith on Sunday evening.

Residents of hundreds of homes were urged to evacuate because of the blaze, dubbed the Schultz fire. Many heeded the call, but their numbers were unclear. Others watched from their properties as bright red and orange flames climbed over a mountain behind a cloud of towering smoke.

Jennifer Whitehair was having lunch in town when she heard her neighborhood was being evacuated. She rushed home, grabbed some important possessions and then sat at a nearby gas station and watched as flames made their way over a mountain and within several hundred feet of her home.

“When something like this happens, it makes you thankful for the things you do have,” she said. “The material things seem less important, although in one sense it’s your life.”

Fire spokesman Eric Neitzel said the fire had moderated somewhat by midnight but was still strong. He said that earlier in the evening flames came within 500 yards of a scattering of homes beneath the mountain, spurring firefighters to build a containment line.

Meanwhile, in the southeastern end of town, evacuation orders for a separate fire the emerged Saturday were lifted after officials reported it 25 percent contained. Residents of the 116 homes evacuated because of the blaze were being allowed to return after crews established a containment perimeter.

A California man was arrested on suspicion of starting the smaller blazed, called the Hardy fire, by leaving behind hot coals at a campsite in a wooded area.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents at a Flagstaff middle school, but few were staying overnight.

Kyle Lathrop didn’t plan to remain at a shelter.

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