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Off-duty Border Patrol agent started Sawmill Fire in southern Arizona

(Twitter Photo/@CoronaFire)

PHOENIX — An off-duty Border Patrol agent was the source of a fire that has consumed just over 40,000 acres in southern Arizona, the agency confirmed on Thursday.

The Sawmill Fire sparked on Sunday after an off-duty Tucson Sector Border Patrol agent “was involved in recreational shooting,” agency spokesman Christopher Sullivan said.

The agent, who was not named on Thursday, “immediately reported the fire after it begun,” Sullivan added.

The Sawmill Fire, which is located near Tucson, had grown from an initial 3,500 acres on Sunday to 46,991 by Sunday night. It has reached 94 percent containment.

The blaze was 7 percent contained early in the week. As winds died down, a crew of nearly 800 were able to make more headway.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday he requested the use of an unmanned drone from the Air National Guard to assess the area once the winds die down.

Gusting winds had carried the blaze across Highway 83. Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels wrote on Facebook Tuesday afternoon that the highway was closed from Interstate 10 to Highway 82 until further notice.

Nearly 200 residents voluntarily evacuated by Tuesday but some were returning home. The Pima County Office of Emergency Management had lifted evacuations in Singing Valley and around Greaterville, but evacuations in Rain Valley continued.

A little over 300 people are working the fire.

Eight Phoenix-area fire departments sent firefighters or equipment to help battle the fire. The firefighters may be gone as long as two weeks.

“We want to help our neighbors and that’s part of what we do because if we ever have a major emergency here then they would do the same for us,” Kevin Bailey with the Central Arizona Wildland Response Team said.

A DC-10 airliner that has been modified to fight wildfires was also brought in to fight the fire.

The fire, burning about 40 miles south of downtown Tucson, was threatening a handful of homes.

The cause of the blaze was under investigation.

The Sawmill Fire could be the first of a long wildfire season. Despite Arizona recording one of its best winter in years in terms of rain and snowfall, experts estimate the southern two-thirds of the state will experience higher-than-usual fire danger by the summer.

Carrie Templin with the Tonto National Forest said people who own homes and businesses in fire-prone areas should take precautions.

“When it dries out, unless you create a buffer around your home, the fire will keep running, especially if we get winds,” she said. “Clear out the dead brush and weeds at least 30 feet from your home and make sure the trees aren’t touching your roof. Clean out the gutters.”

Last year, about 310,000 acres burned in Arizona.

KTAR’s Jim Cross contributed to this report.

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