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Utah wildfire grows to largest active fire in US

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The nation’s largest wildfire has forced more than 1,500 people from their homes and cabins in a southern Utah mountain area home to a ski town and popular fishing lake.

Firefighters battled high winds Monday as they fought a fire that has grown to 72 square miles (184 square kilometers) and burned 13 homes — larger than any other fire in the country now, state emergency managers said.

Some flames reached 100 feet high, while fire crews faced dry, windy conditions Tuesday and a “high potential” for extreme fire behavior, officials said late Monday.

The estimated firefighting costs now top $7 million for a fire started June 17 near the Brian Head Resort by someone using a torch tool to burn weeds, they said. Investigators said they know who the culprit is, but they haven’t yet released the person’s identity or what charges will be leveled.

Crews in California, meanwhile, got a handle on a brush fire that closed a freeway. Arizona firefighters had to ground aircraft because of unauthorized drones over a fire near Flagstaff.

The Utah fire began near the ski resort town of Brian Head, generally known for weekend getaway homes for Las Vegas residents. It has spread several miles east to an area around Panguitch Lake, a popular spot for fishing.

Authorities ordered more evacuations Monday in a sparsely populated area as stronger winds and lower humidity develop that could push fire growth north after calmer weather kept its growth in check over the weekend. The fire is about 10 percent contained.

About 175 people have been briefly allowed back to their homes near Panguitch Lake since Sunday under escort, said Denise Dastrup with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.

Randi Powell said her grandfather is hoping to get up to see his cabin on Tuesday. Powell said it has been an “emotional roller coaster” for her and her grandparents, who live part of the year at a cabin near the fire. Powell said she and her sister helped grab family heirlooms, pictures and important documents last Thursday when her grandparents had to evacuate on short notice.

Powell is relying on social media updates from friends and others who live or have homes in the area. So far, it appears her grandparents’ 5-bedroom cabin, built about 60 years ago, is still intact, she said. But that hasn’t stopped them from worrying.

“There will be uncertainty until you get up there and walk through it,” said Powell, 32, who lives about one hour away in Cedar City. “Until it’s totally out, you won’t know if you’ll be OK.”

At Brian Head Resort, they are hoping that hot spots near where the blaze started will calm down enough to allow officials to lift the evacuations in time for 4th of July festivities that usually bring an estimated 15,000 people to listen to music and watch fireworks, resort spokesman Mark Wilder said.

If the events can happen, they will likely be scaled back with fewer visitors — and with no fireworks, he said. Wilder said they’re hopeful but realistic.

“Things change day-to-day,” Wilder said. “This thing has been a beast.”

Meanwhile, a wildfire surging out of control on California’s Central Coast has forced about 250 people to evacuate from their homes.

The blaze broke out late Monday afternoon and within just a few hours had grown to about 500 acres (200 hectares), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

The evacuation order is for a string of homes along about five sparsely populated rural roads in and around the small town of Santa Margarita about 10 miles (16 km) north of the much larger city of San Luis Obispo. The fire has grown to 1.5 square miles (365 hectares.)

Another California wildfire sparked by a traffic accident on a remote stretch of highway 80 miles east of Los Angeles has grown to nearly two square miles (over 500 hectares) in just a few hours.

Two people were hospitalized in the solo-vehicle crash and subsequent car fire that caused the wildfire on Monday afternoon.

Both California fires came amid soaring temperatures and dry air that are supposed to start receding early Tuesday.

In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez ordered flags to fly at half-staff in honor of a volunteer firefighter who died from injuries suffered while battling a brush fire in eastern New Mexico last week. Nara Visa Fire Chief Gary Girard tells The Eastern New Mexico News that John Cammack was severely burned after falling from a fire engine when the winds shifted and the flames changed direction.

In Arizona, firefighters had to ground aircraft after they spotted drones being flown near the fire, Bureau of Land Management spokesman Dennis Godfrey said. The Arizona Republic reports another unauthorized drone was spotted Sunday, temporarily halting aerial efforts to put out a fire northwest of Flagstaff that is 88 percent contained.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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