PHOENIX (AP) – A blaze in rugged central Arizona grew to 167,000 acres Wednesday night and concern shifted to three communities surrounded by pine forest that could wind up in harm’s way.

The fire was burning about 20 miles southwest of the mountain communities of Pine and Strawberry and 12 miles from the point when evacuations may be necessary. It was less than 6 miles from Black Canyon City, a community of 4,500 about 45 miles north of Phoenix, but wasn’t considered an imminent threat to structures there.

The lightning-sparked blaze was about 40 percent contained on its southern flank Wednesday night. There was no immediate containment figure for the northern flank.

No evacuations had been ordered, but authorities said if the fire crosses the Verde River, it could race into numerous vacation homes set in pine forest.

The fire’s western flank was the concern in Black Canyon City.

In her weekly briefing with reporters, Gov. Janet Napolitano said the blaze “remains the most worrisome fire that we’ve got in the state right now.”

More than 200 residents packed a Black Canyon City park Wednesday night to hear from fire officials about efforts to stop the blaze from reaching their community. Similar town hall meetings were scheduled in Pine and Strawberry to discuss the fire and necessary precautions.

“We do have to be prepared, but there’s no reason for panic,” said Strawberry inn owner Cheryl Holland.

The blaze began June 21 as two lightning-started fires and destroyed 11 homes near Cave Creek, just north of Phoenix. The fire may have dealt a fatal blow to the world’s largest saguaro cactus, which could be two centuries old.

The 46-foot Grand One, recognized in the National Register of Big Trees for its height, mass of limbs and a base circumference of nearly 8 feet, was scorched.

“As much as I’d like to be optimistic, I’m not,” said Tonto National Forest spokeswoman Emily Garber about the saguaro’s survival.

The National Interagency Fire Center said Wednesday that 22 active large fires had burned across more than 905,000 acres in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

In southern Nevada, good weather and a large firefighting force helped slow two huge wildfires burning Wednesday near the railroad town of Caliente.

“We have made progress,” said Kathy Jo Pollock, a U.S. Forest Service fire spokeswoman. “We’ve got 25 percent containment and we have really favorable weather conditions today.”

With the fire lines still about 10 miles from town, Pollock said there was “no threat” to Caliente.

Firefighters were battling lightning-sparked blazes in a wide area northeast of Las Vegas. Seven other blazes have been contained, and no structures have been destroyed.

Some blazes burning through vast stretches of uninhabited desert and mountains merged, with the total fire zone covering about 500,000 acres. One blaze burned in the Delamar Mountains, home to a herd of bighorn sheep.

Incident commanders were still mapping the burn area, which includes federally protected desert tortoise habitat on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land. Fires hopscotched across brittle desert grasses, mesquite, Joshua trees and mountain pines, officials said.

In Utah, relieved residents of the southwest community of New Harmony – nearly consumed by a wildfire – have returned to their homes.

“God was looking out for us. Our property was unharmed,” said Emily Jones, whose home was within 50 feet of the fire.

Officials Wednesday said they were most concerned about a 4,300-acre wildfire burning in the Desert Red Cliff Preserve about 10 miles north of St. George. The fire is burning in the prime location for habitat and native grasses for the endangered desert tortoise.


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