Crews optimistic about weather in fighting Arizona wildfire

Helicopters drop water on part of the Slide Fire in Sterling Canyon at the Oak Creek Overlook above Sedona, Ariz. on Thursday, May 22, 2014. Hundreds of firefighters worked Thursday to protect communities on the edge of Flagstaff from a wildfire that is chewing up a scenic Arizona canyon with towering flames and burning entire trees down to nothing but ash. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Michael Schennum) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES

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By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Crews fighting a major wind-swept wildfire that has threatened hundreds of Arizona homes in a scenic area could look to the skies with optimism on Friday, buoyed by forecasts of improved weather conditions, a top fire official said.

    About 900 firefighters took to the fire lines amid higher moisture and favorable winds as they continued efforts to hold off a 7,500-acre blaze that threatens 300 homes and businesses in Oak Creek Canyon, a popular recreation spot about 120 miles (190 km) north of Phoenix.

The so-called Slide Fire, which has not destroyed any homes or caused any major injuries, remained at 5 percent containment on Friday, officials said.

"It looks like the weather is going to cooperate for the next couple of days," Incident Commander Tony Sciacca told a news conference. "One of the promising things ... is that our relative humidity is on the rise and will continue to be.”

But he also cautioned that any precipitation could make the already difficult firefighting more dangerous, with rocks and other debris potentially falling from the canyon slopes.

    Sciacca said crews had "a really good night" defending structures threatened by the blaze and quickly extinguishing several spot fires that sparked.

    The fire broke out on Tuesday, prompting an undetermined number of people to evacuate their homes and cabins along a two-mile stretch in the canyon. The American Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter at a school in nearby Flagstaff.

About 3,000 residents living in two area subdivisions also have been put on notice to be ready to flee their homes if the fire advances closer. Officials said the nearest residence remained more than three miles away on Friday.

     Anxious residents from Kachina Village and Forest Highlands packed a meeting with fire officials on Thursday, with some choosing to leave and not wait for mandatory evacuations.

     "We are working very hard to get those people a little bit more relief and a little bit more comfort about being in their houses," Sciacca told reporters.     

     The fire, believed to have been caused by people, broke out north of Slide Rock State Park, a popular recreation area.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and James Dalgleish)

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