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Smoke from a wind-whipped wildfire rises above neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Ariz., on April 19.Sean Golightly/The Associated Press

Firefighters faced strong winds and bone-dry conditions on Wednesday as they battled a rapidly growing wildfire in central Arizona that has already driven thousands of residents from their homes and destroyed two dozen structures.

The blaze, dubbed the Tunnel Fire, covered an area of some 6,000 acres as it sped northeast, 14 miles (23 km) north of Flagstaff, Arizona, fire officials said at a news conference late on Tuesday.

“I cannot stress enough how rapidly this fire is moving,” said True Brown, a fire management officer with the Coconino National Forest. “I cannot stress how important it is to leave the fire area.”

The fire forced more than 2,000 residents from 760 homes in Coconino County, said Patrice Horstman, the chairwoman of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

The fire has destroyed 24 structures and threatened to destroy hundreds more, officials said.

Some 200 firefighters who were fighting the blaze will face a day of wind gusts of 30 miles an hour and the per cent of humidity in the teens on Wednesday and Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

“The combination of gusty winds and low humidity can cause fire to rapidly grow in size and intensity before firs responders can contain them,” the service said in an fire watch advisory issued for Thursday.

Like other southwestern states hit by climate change, Arizona is suffering an early start to its fire season. Dry grass and brush, along with scattered pine, are fuelling the fire, officials said.

Last week an elderly couple died in their home when a wildfire swept through Ruidoso, New Mexico, destroying hundreds of houses and forcing thousands to flee the mountain town.

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