By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Crews battled to contain wind-whipped Arizona wildfires on Wednesday that have raced across 27 square miles of parched ponderosa forest, brush and grassland, consuming several buildings and threatening a small town, authorities said.
The Sunflower Fire, the largest of at least four blazes in central and eastern Arizona, has burned nearly 19 square miles (49 square kilometers) in the Tonto National Forest, about 40 miles north of Phoenix, a fire response team handling the blaze said. It was just 7 percent contained.
The blazes were the first major wildfires in Arizona this year, after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 recorded blazes together swallowed more than 1,500 square miles according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The fires left a translucent veil of gray smoke over the northeast Phoenix valley, blocking view of nearby highlands where the blazes were burning.
About 350 residents of Crown King in central Arizona remained under evacuation after the human-caused Gladiator Fire burned 3 square miles (8 square miles) of ponderosa pine, brush and chaparral in the Prescott National Forest and destroyed several buildings.
Fanned by strong winds and dry weather, the Gladiator Fire also threatened homes in the Horsethief Basin area, forest service campgrounds, lookout towers and power lines in the area, the fire incident team said. It was 5 percent contained, and expected to grow on Wednesday.
"Fire behavior is expected to be extreme ... Forecasted drier weather and associated strong winds may continue to complicate suppression efforts," the team said in a statement.
"Firefighters continue working to suppress the fire and provide structure protection to homes in the community," it added.
Some 865 firefighters battled to douse the two blazes and bring them under control, with dozens of fire engines, helicopters and air tankers.
Citing drought conditions, heat and "increased fire dangers," the Tonto National Forest areas was placed under tight fire restrictions on Wednesday.
On the San Carlos Apache reservation, in eastern Arizona, the Elwood Fire, caused by lightning, has charred more than 2 square miles (about 5 square kilometers) of ponderosa pine, juniper and oak since the weekend.
The Bull Flat Fire on the Fort Apache reservation, meanwhile, burned nearly 3 square miles (about 8 square kilometers) of brush and grassland. It is up to 45 percent contained.
Last year's so-called Wallow Fire, the largest blaze in the state's history, started in late May and torched about 840 square miles of prime forest land in eastern Arizona.
U.S. Senator John McCain ignited a furor when he suggested last June that the blaze might have been started by illegal immigrants. Two Arizona cousins, later pleaded guilty to starting that fire when they left a campfire unattended.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)