Authorities: Man facing charge of starting Arizona fire -

Authorities: Man facing charge of starting Arizona fire

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- A California man was arrested Sunday on suspicion of leaving behind hot coals at a campsite just outside Flagstaff, sparking a wildfire that forced the evacuation of 170 homes and a hotel near downtown, a city spokeswoman said.

Randall Wayne Nicholson, 54, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of burning of a wildland, Kimberly Ott said. Nicholson, whose hometown was not immediately available, was being held Sunday on a $2,500 bond at the Coconino County Detention Facility.

Authorities said he was camping in a wooded area a couple of miles from downtown when he built a small campfire Saturday for either cooking or making coffee. Investigators believe he dumped coals from the fire on the ground before leaving the site.

"As far as we understand, this was not a deliberate act. It was a careless act," Ott said.

The wildfire quickly spread up a hill and threatened homes in two neighborhoods. Evacuation orders for 170 homes remained in place Sunday, and a park and popular bike trail were closed as a precaution, Coconino County spokeswoman Joanne Keene said. The Little America Hotel also was briefly evacuated.

The Southwest is particularly vulnerable to wildfires after having a wet winter and a dry, windy spring, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

Crews worked overnight and Sunday to establish a perimeter around the 350-acre fire, mop up some hot spots and protect structures. But Keene said fire officials have not declared any part of the blaze contained.

"The winds are expected to pick up and the latest I've heard is about 30 mph, so we're concerned about that," she said.

The fire sent smoke through parts of Flagstaff and caused traffic to back up on Interstate 40. Authorities said no homes or buildings had been burned.

About a dozen people checked into a temporary shelter at a middle school, official said. About 80 animals from the Coconino Humane Society were moved to another shelter north of town.

Fire officials said crews planned to continue building containment lines around the fire Sunday. Heavy tankers and three aircraft were on standby in case ground crews needed help.

"We're watching it, and we're hoping for the best," Keene said.

Fires also had crews busy near Williams, Ariz., and in Colorado and New Mexico.

On Sunday, high winds and rugged terrain kept ground crews and aircraft from getting close to a wildfire in southern Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park. The fire grew to 4,500 acres.

A second fire burned across 150 acres on the Roan Plateau in western Colorado, and a red flag warning was issued for high fire danger across much of the central, southern and western parts of the state.

In New Mexico, crews were making progress on the South Fork fire, which has charred more than 11,150 acres in steep, inaccessible terrain in the Jemez Mountains.

In southern New Mexico, the 2,600-acre Aspen fire was 60 percent contained.

Rick Ochoa of the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho said officials had anticipated a much bigger fire season in the northwestern part of the country, but a series of moisture-bearing storms in the region lessened the fire activity at higher elevations. He said the opposite has been true in the Southwest.

"The Southwest had a wet winter and then the spring turned dry. Because we've had all of these storms up in the northwest, that's brought a lot more wind to the Southwest, so the combination of a dry and windy spring has increased the fire potential quite a bit in the Southwest," he said.


Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan and Sofia Mannos contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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