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Interstate 10 partly reopens east of Tucson after wildfire closure

Walnut Fire expands to nearly 7,000 acres near Texas Canyon, prompts evacuations in rural area

One lane of Interstate 10 has reopened in each direction Tuesday evening after the Walnut Fire forced a closure of the highway between Tucson and Willcox, as the fire chewed through more than 6,800 acres of chaparral and grass in the desert northeast of Benson, Ariz., in the Texas Canyon area.

Residents of the rural area around Dragoon Road were ordered to evacuate Tuesday afternoon, and that evacuation remained in place through the night.

I-10 was closed in both directions Tuesday afternoon, Arizona Department of Transportation officials said, but in the evening one lane each way had been reopened to traffic. Vehicles had been detoured to the south, between Benson and Cochise, with a 92-mile diversion through Tombstone, Elfrida and Sunsites.

The highway remained open Wednesday morning, with the "hard evacuation" still in place, the Cochise County Sheriff's Office said.

The Texas Canyon rest area was closed, and the wildfire was burning on both sides of the interstate, with a "spot fire" on the south side of the roadway, officials said in the afternoon. Residents in the area of Dragoon, Amerind and Triangle T roads were warned to leave their homes.

ADOT said Tuesday morning that crews are trying to hold the fire along the road. By the afternoon officials decided to close the right lane at Interstate 10 near Dragoon, Ariz., and warned that drivers should use caution as smoke was moving across the highway. Tuesday afternoon, CCSO said that the blaze was burning on both sides of I-10, as officials announced that the road was entirely closed and that traffic was being detoured.

Around 6:30 p.m., county officials said that the interstate had partially reopened, and that Dragoon Road was also open to traffic, although they said that evacuees should not yet return to their homes. Deputies were patrolling the area, CCSO officials said.

Fire officials said that extreme heat, dry vegetation, and shifting wind fueled the Walnut Fire, pushing it to the north, south and east, including toward Mae West Peaks about 4 miles northwest of Interstate 10. The fire was reported Sunday morning.

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As a precaution, officials earlier said that they had established 10 "trigger points," or places that might prompt evacuations or closures if the fire crosses those points. Meanwhile, helicopters were "providing bucket work," and a hand crew worked to slow the fire's movement toward the road, officials said. 

"At this time I-10 is open, but if and when the fire reaches the established trigger points, the highway will be shut down for public safety concerns," officials said Tuesday morning.  

They warned that "extreme heat" will continue to affect both ground and air operations, as crews, including nearly 80 people, work to contain the fire in often steep, difficult terrain. They also warned that winds could create "erratic fire behavior and possibly shift the fire in different directions." 

Along with fire crews, firefighters are also employing engines, water tenders, and helicopters. Additional aircraft has been requested, officials said. 

Earlier, a "SET" status was issued for residents in the area south of Interstate 10 between mile posts 318 and 322, to Dragoon Road and west of Johnson Road, advising them to be prepared to evacuate, the Cochise County Sheriff's Office said. In mid-afternoon, people near Dragoon, Amerind and Triangle T roads were told to leave when a "GO" order was issued. Residents can sign up for emergency alerts through the Cochise County's emergency management website. 

The Walnut Fire is one of 25 fires currently burning in Arizona, including a prescribed burn in the Kaibab National Forest south of the Grand Canyon. 

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The Walnut Fire was burning on both sides of Interstate 10 on Tuesday, prompting the shut down of the highway.