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Sea breezes aid fight to curb Southwest wildfires

A Cal Fire aircraft drops flame retardant on the Topaz Ranch Estates Fire in Wellington, Nevada May 23, 2012. Evacuations were lifted today
A Cal Fire aircraft drops flame retardant on the Topaz Ranch Estates Fire in Wellington, Nevada May 23, 2012. Evacuations were lifted today

By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Winds bringing a blast of damp Pacific Ocean air cut firefighters a break on Thursday as they battled to stamp out several dangerous forest and brush fires burning in five Southwestern U.S. states.

Blazes in rugged, mountainous areas of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah have forced the evacuation of a few small towns and torched at least 170 square miles (440 square km) of forest, brush and grass since mid-month.

The Arizona fires were the first major blazes in the Grand Canyon state this year after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 fires charred more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square km), according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

More than 1,100 firefighters using aircraft and hand tools made progress toward containing the Southwest's most dangerous conflagration, the so-called Gladiator Fire in Arizona.

That fire, which has torched more than 27 square miles (70 square km) of ponderosa pine and brush some 40 miles north of Phoenix, was 30 percent contained on Thursday, up from 26 percent a day earlier.

"The winds we've gotten here in the last 24 hours have brought in some moisture from Baja (California)," said Dave Killebrew, a spokesman for the local fire incident team.

"Humidity reached up to as high as 50 percent in some areas of the fire, which is excellent ... That means that the fuels won't be nearly as volatile as they have been for the last few days when we've had relative humidity down as low as 3-5 percent," he added.

Killebrew said good progress was being made securing containment lines around the blaze, which forced the evacuation of the town of Crown King and three other tiny communities nearby.

In northern Nevada, lighter winds and higher humidity helped crews' efforts to curb the Topaz Ranch Estates wildfire that has razed more than 9 square miles (23 square km) of brush south of Carson City, charring two homes and more than a dozen outbuildings.

No homes were immediately threatened an evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday. While gusting winds challenged firefighters, rains and cooler temperatures were expected to help crews bring the flames under control by Saturday.

"Any storm front that comes off the sierras is preceded by extremely high winds," incident team spokesman John Stonelake told Reuters. "If we can get through the wind event, things are looking pretty good," he added.

Authorities in New Mexico, meanwhile, continued to monitor the Southwest's largest blaze, a complex comprising two fast-burning fires that charred more than 110 square miles (285 square km) of steep, rugged terrain in the Gila Wilderness area.

The so-called Whitewater Baldy Complex triggered the precautionary evacuation of Willow Creek summer community this week and the closure of several hiking trails.

Crews battling the 25-square-mile (65-square-km) Sunflower Fire, in Arizona, had succeeded in reinforcing control lines and it was more than 40 percent under control.

A large human-caused wildfire that scorched 18.5 square miles (48 square km) in Mexico before creeping across the border to Arizona was running out of fuel Thursday after consuming 50 acres of grass, brush and oak in the Coronado National Forest.

Utah firefighters battling a 2,200-acre (890-hectare) blaze on public and private land southeast of Hurricane, about 290 miles south of Salt Lake City said they expected to bring it under full control on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Utah; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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