June 30, 2017 / 9:48 AM / 20 days ago

Firefighters gain ground on Arizona wildfire

3 Min Read

Smoke rises from the Goodwin Fire which had prompted the evacuation of the town of Mayer, Arizona, U.S. June 27, 2017. Picture taken June 27, 2017. Arizona Department of Transportation/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) - More residents were allowed to return home and officials reopened a major roadway on Friday in central Arizona as firefighters continued to battle a six-day-old wildfire that forced thousands to evacuate.

The fire has damaged buildings, but there were no reported serious injuries, said Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire spokeswoman Tiffany Davila.

The blaze, dubbed the Goodwin Fire, has charred nearly 25,000 acres (10,120 hectares) and destroyed an unknown number of homes after erupting last Saturday in the Prescott National Forest, 70 miles (110 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 late Thursday evening firefighting teams had managed to contain 43 percent of the fire.

Authorities reopened part of Highway 69 in Mayer, a town of 1,400 people, and residents from the east side of nearby Poland Junction were allowed to return home on Friday, Davila said.

Still, at least 1,000 residents from about 10 other communities were waiting to return home.

Officials lifted evacuation orders on Thursday for several parts of the area, including Mayer, that was evacuated on Tuesday.

Diminished winds and increased humidity helped slow the fire's growth and intensity, aiding a force of about 1,000 firefighters, including crews in airplane tankers dumping payloads of flame retardants, officials said.

"Within the first few days of the fire, weather conditions – wind - and thick vegetation really hindered firefighters' operations," Davila said.

The Goodwin blaze was among the largest of the 17 active wildfires burning across Arizona on Friday.

Heavy rainfall in parts of the West over the winter and spring helped delay the onset of the fire season, but also spurred the growth of dense vegetation that has now dried out and become highly combustible as summertime heat sets in.

On Friday, Tennessee prosecutors dropped arson charges against two juveniles in connection with a November wildfire, where fourteen people died, in the eastern part of the state around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, officials said.

Prosecutors are unable to prove criminal responsibility of the two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt because of weather conditions, according to a statement from Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn.

The deadly fire was the highest death toll from wildfires in the United States since 2013, when 19 firefighters died near Prescott, Arizona.

Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago and Tim Ghianni in Nashville; editing by Taylor Harris

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