- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Calmer winds provided some temporary relief Wednesday as crews worked to contain a southern Arizona wildfire but residents of hundreds of homes remained under pre-evacuation notices.

Driven by wind amid dry conditions, the fire has burned 62 square miles (80 sq. kilometers) of grass, brush and trees as it swept across the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

The announced size of the fire was doubled Wednesday, an increase that fire managers attributed to new mapping.

The fire remained at just 7 percent of containment around its perimeter Wednesday but fire managers said calmer weather was helping both ground teams and aerial operations. Wednesday’s work focused on linking and bolstering cleared lines around the perimeter.

However, forecasts call for winds to pick up again by Friday and Cochise County officials plan to keep several hundred homes in desert areas north and south of Interstate 10 west of Benson under pre-evacuation notices into the weekend, sheriff’s spokeswoman Carol Capas.

Those areas were about a dozen miles from the fire, but some scattered dwellings are closer.

With winds expected to pick up again, “we’re hoping that they’re able to grab this handle today,” Capas said of firefighters’ efforts Wednesday.

Some residents evacuated early in the week in areas now not deemed at risk were allowed to return to their homes.

Those included 11 nuns ordered from their abbey on the Santa Ritas’ western foothills Monday but allowed to return Tuesday after the fire changed direction.

The evacuation of the Santa Rita Abbey was an inconvenience but also “a wonderful experience” because of the kindness shown by area residents who took in evacuees, said Sister Victoria Murray, the abbey’s prioress.

The nuns went to an evacuation center at the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds in nearby Sonoita where local residents flocked to offer shelter to the evacuees. All the nuns ended up staying at a bed-and-breakfast.

The fire started Sunday about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Green Valley and then moved into and through the Santa Ritas before crossing and closing State Route 83 on the range’s east side.

Officials said there was no lightning when the fire started so it was human-caused. The U.S. Forest Service and law enforcement personnel were investigating the specific cause, Coronado National Forest spokesman Heidi Schewel said.

Aproxmately 350 personnel were assigned to the fire along with multiple aircraft and dozens of fire engines.

No structure damage or injuries have been reported.

The fire’s management team was upgraded late Tuesday from a Type 3 team to a Type 2 team, and a Type 1 team was scheduled to assemble Wednesday and take command Thursday, officials said.

Manny Cordova, a spokesman for the Type 2 team, said the management changes were being made because of the fire’s complexity. The higher level teams have more personnel and more experience in fighting large and complex fires, he said.


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