'Sawmill' wildfire in southern Arizona 20% contained, still at 40,350 acres

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(Source: Golder Ranch Fire District) (Source: Golder Ranch Fire District)
(Source: Golder Ranch Fire District) (Source: Golder Ranch Fire District)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source ADOT) (Source ADOT)

Firefighters have gained some ground against the Sawmill Fire burning in southern Arizona. The wildfire is now 20 percent contained as of Wednesday night.

Fire officials said on Wednesday the fire burned 40,350 acres, an increase that fire managers attributed to new mapping.

Officials said there was no lightning when the fire started so it was human-caused. U.S. Forest Service law enforcement personnel are investigating the specific cause.

Wednesday's work focused on linking and bolstering cleared lines around the perimeter.

However, forecasts call for winds to pick up again by Friday and Cochise County officials plan to keep several hundred homes in desert areas north and south of Interstate 10 west of Benson under pre-evacuation notices into the weekend, sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas said.

Those areas were about a dozen miles from the fire, but some scattered dwellings are closer.

The fire also closed a highway and burned thousands of acres of grass, brush and trees as it swept across the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

Manny Cordova, a public information officer for the firefighting effort, said in a news conference that the fire has affected power lines in the burn area, which includes a stretch of SR-83 between Sonoita and I-10. Cordova said crews from the gas company will inspect gas lines on Wednesday.

The fire moved toward the north overnight.

Around 9 a.m., the Pima County Office of Emergency Management ordered the immediate evacuation of the Rain Valley area due to firefighting activity and dangerous conditions.

Gusty winds and rough terrain have contributed to the fire's growth in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson, Coronado National Forest spokeswoman Heidi Schewel said.

But the good news is that winds are forecast to be lighter on Wednesday, giving fire crews new hope for an easier fight.

There are no reports of injuries or structure damage, but the fire has resulted in multiple evacuations.

Jan Hammond had to evacuate her home as the fire crept toward her property.

"I just saw the flames coming and we were gone," Hammond said.

The evacuees included a local fire chief's family who left their home to temporarily stay in Tucson and 11 nuns who left their abbey and took refuge at a bed-and-breakfast.

Property at risk included homes, ranches, communications facilities, power lines and the Arizona National Scenic Trail, forest officials said.

The fire started Sunday,

The fire has crossed State Route 83 in several locations on the east side of the mountain range. A 15-mile stretch of the highway was closed southward from a point three miles south of Interstate 10.

We're told there are 386 people assigned to the fire with crews working 24-hour shifts. More are expected to arrive later this week.

Officials said due to high winds and dry conditions, the fire is likely to continue to grow. 

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