By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) – Firefighters gained ground against a fierce, five-day-old wildfire in central Arizona on Thursday, enabling authorities to lift evacuation orders for the largest town that had been threatened, but 2,000 people remain displaced in neighboring communities.
The blaze, dubbed the Goodwin Fire, has charred nearly 25,000 acres (10,120 hectares) and destroyed an unknown number of homes since erupting on Saturday in the Prescott National Forest, 70 miles (113 km) north of Phoenix.
Stoked by high winds as it roared through dense, sun-baked chaparral, the blaze raged largely unchecked for the first few days, but by Thursday firefighting teams had managed to carve containment lines around 25 percent of the perimeter.
“This means that we are really making progress on the fire,” said Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire. “Crews are really getting a handle on the fire and all their efforts … seem to be coming into play.”
Residents of Mayer, a town of 1,400 people evacuated on Tuesday, were allowed to return home on Thursday morning, said Dwight Develyn, a spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office.
But Develyn said about 2,000 residents forced to flee from 10 other communities during the week remained under evacuation orders. About 1,400 children at summer camps in the area were also sent home, according to Sheriff Scott Mascher.
A force of about 800 firefighters, backed by airplane tankers dumping payloads of flame-retardant chemicals, benefited from diminished winds and increased humidity in the region that helped slow the fire’s growth and intensity, officials said.
“We’re having better conditions than we’ve had for a while, so I think we’re in decent shape,” fire command spokesman Gerry Perry said.
No serious injuries have been reported.
The Goodwin blaze was one of more than two dozen large, active wildfires reported burning on Thursday across Arizona and eight other U.S. states.
Heavy rainfall in parts of the West over the winter and spring helped delay the onset of fire season, but also spurred the growth of dense vegetation that has now dried out and become highly combustible as summertime heat sets in.
Wildfires have scorched nearly 2.8 million acres so far this year, compared with 2.1 million acres at this point in 2016, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Forecasts called for hot, dry weather and gusty winds across much of the Southwest this coming holiday weekend, posing a lingering fire threat for the region.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien; editing by Jonathan Oatis and G Crosse)