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Central Arizona wildfires close highways, cause evacuations (copy)

GOLD CANYON — A series of lightning-caused wildfires in central Arizona have burned thousands of acres, closed highways and trails and caused some evacuations.

There are six fires currently burning in the Tonto National Forest. The largest is in Gila County where two fires merged, causing the closure of a stretch of U.S. Highway 60 between Globe and Show Low and the evacuation of some residents.

A massive wildfire continues to burn in the Superstition Wilderness but so far is not threatening any structures.

The lightning-caused Superstition Fire started Aug. 20, has burned more than 4,400 acres and is 0% contained as of Wednesday afternoon.

Smoke and flames have been visible from the Apache Junction and Gold Canyon areas.

Tonto National Forest officials say recreation areas in northern Pinal County will be closed beginning Thursday. They will include areas west of Peralta Canyon Road, areas north of Peralta Canyon Road and the Peralta Trail.

Wednesday night the fire had spread to the northwest due to outflow winds from passing thunderstorms. This resulted in the fire backing downslope into flatter terrain.

“With the fire being in this new terrain, firefighters will now have better anchor points to engage the fire directly,” the Tonto National Forest said. “This will also give firefighters better options for safety zones, and escape routes.”

Officials say resource availability has been a challenge for the Superstition Fire. With multiple fires threatening human life and property, resources have been assigned to other incidents throughout the country.

The Forest Service is being assisted by Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, Superstition Fire and Medical, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, and Pinal County Sheriff’s Department.

Firefighters will work to keep the fire away from structures, State Route 88 and the Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction.

As of Wednesday afternoon there were no evacuations in effect for the Superstition Fire.

At around noon Tuesday, Gila County Health and Emergency Management issued an evacuation order for communities east of U.S. 60 from the Arizona Department of Transportation Yard to Winters Ranch. That includes residents off Fairgrounds Road, Winters Ranch and Johnson Ranch.

According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, U.S. 60 is closed in both directions for 67 miles from Globe to the State Route 73 junction due to the wildfire, dubbed the Griffin Fire.

Authorities said two different fires were started by lightning on Aug. 17 and they merged six days later to form a wildfire that has charred more than 59 square miles in the Apache Mountains with 32% containment.

Dry and windy conditions have fanned the flames the past few days.

More than 550 firefighters were battling the fire on the ground and in the air.

Harkins movie theaters to open Friday

PHOENIX — If sitting in a dark room to be entertained with a bucket of popcorn and an oversize container of soda in your lap is your idea of a good time, you’re in luck.

Harkins, the state’s largest chain of theaters, announced Tuesday it will be opening its doors this coming Friday at virtually all of its Arizona theaters, including the venue in Casa Grande. That comes just days after the company said it would begin seating patrons in Prescott Valley, Flagstaff and Sedona.

But the experience won’t be quite the same as it was before.

It starts with face coverings which will be required of both employees and guests. The only exception will be eating and drinking, and only while seated.

There will be more room between couples and families and others, with reserved seating similar to what the AMC chain already was doing before the shutdown.

Overall capacity will be at 50% with the lone exception of the company’s theater in Yuma. There the state is permitting just 25% of the seats to be filled because that county’s infection rate remains higher than elsewhere.

And even that plastic cup that entitles “loyalty’’ members to reduced-price drinks all year will be honored with beverages dispensed into disposable cups instead. And there will be special lines at the concession stands for “touchless’’ transactions with credit cards only.

The company also has promised to install safety shields, put sanitizer stations throughout the theater and install what it says are “hospital grade air filters’’ and provide increased fresh air circulation. There also will be daily screenings of workers for virus symptoms.

It also is staggering the start times for shows to reduce crowds.

Harkins along with all other Arizona theaters closed in late March when Gov. Doug Ducey said that only “essential businesses’’ could remain open.

He eased up on the rules in May when he ended his stay-at-home orders.

But those changes resulted in a massive spike in COVID-19 infections. So the governor in late June shut the doors on them again, along with gyms, fitness centers, tubing and water parks.

The current rules in place allow reopening — but only at 50% capacity in the five counties where the spread of the virus has been reduced from “substantial’’ to “moderate.’’ State health officials believe that Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties will hit that level by the end of the week.

Those orders, though, allowed individual theaters to petition to reopen if they could show they can operate safely, even in counties where the risk of the virus remains high.

The addition of the Harkins chain to what can be opened is a major development.

Until Tuesday, the state health department had agreed to provide waivers to only four theaters not located in the five counties where businesses can reopen: the Invisible Theater in Tucson and the Alamo theaters in Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert. And it had rejected a bid to reopen by the Sawmill Theatre in Payson.

AMC Theatres, the other big Arizona player, has not announced any Arizona reopenings.

Harkins already has a full lineup planned as it — and Hollywood — seeks to salvage what it can of the summer moviegoing season.

One major release is “The New Mutants,’’ anticipated to be the last installment of the Marvel Comics X-Men film series.

There also will be showings of the new Russell Crowe film “Unhinged’’ as well as the more family friendly animated “Sonic the Hedgehog’’ about an extraterrestrial blue hedgehog who can run at supersonic speeds.

And the chain is promoting “early access screenings’’ of “Tenet’’ starting on Aug. 31, the new Christopher Nolan spy film.

But there also will be some oldies in the batch, including a 10-year anniversary showing of “Inception.’’

There is at least one exception to the Harkins opening. There are no films yet announced for the Valley Art theater in Tempe.

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Group protests border wall outside Coolidge plant

COOLIDGE — About 15 people held a peaceful demonstration early Wednesday outside a Coolidge company they say is making components for the border wall between Arizona and Mexico.

The protesters assembled outside Stinger Bridge & Iron starting at about 6 a.m. and claimed the wall is violating sacred tribal land of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The approximately 90-minute protest emphasized general issues area Native people deal with and their ancestral ties to the land. The protesters did not answer questions asked by PinalCentral and refused to identify themselves by personal names. One woman said she and others were from the Gila River Akimel O’odham territory, while another woman said the tribes represented included Gila River, Tohono O’odham and the Hia C-ed near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Few references were made to the border wall project specifically, but one speaker began a comment with “border wall, stole their land, genocide against Native bodies, white supremacy, the list goes on and on and on. It’s not funny. You’re here because your family had to leave their country of origin. They had to leave because of white people. They had to leave because of capitalism. ... Don’t ... come here and keep taking.”

The same speaker also held past tribal leaders accountable for the frustrations Natives suffer through today, while also taking the Nation’s 2020 populace to task and compelling all to take more action.

“To the Tohono O’odham Nation, we want you to remember that you sold us out, you sold our lands, you sold our people out and left the Akimel O’odham for 50 years. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Akimel O’odham were recognized by the Tohono O’odham Nation. We had a 12th district that was dismantled. … Our people were known to revolt. Our people are known to unite. Our people were known to come together when the time was needed. We have forgotten that. We have become complacent. … Let us come together. Warriors wake up. We are warrior people.”

American industry is an ugly example of “U.S. colonialism and violence,” another speaker said.

“They don’t care about us. They don’t care about you. They don’t care about your future generations. They don’t care about where the water’s gonna come from. People move here all the time to Arizona knowing that there’s limited resources here. Only the people here know how to manage those resources. But, instead, that breadth of knowledge is disregarded. But here they are struggling. When they came here to our territories … we’re supposed to take care of people that’s a part of us. But look at what you’ve done. You made yourself a home and then you pushed us out and called it yours. And then we come and you act like we’re visitors. We are not visitors. This is our land. This is our community. Our children are going to have to deal with this while you can move to another city, another state, another country. We’re here forever. You are temporary. And we will prove that. It will be proven in the end.”

The demonstration was staged at Stinger’s entry gate at 281 E. Randolph Road, across the highway from the primary facility, to a largely open complex used to fabricate and stage equipment and trucks, said a Stinger employee who declined to give his name.

Several Coolidge police officers arrived shortly after 6 a.m. followed by deputies from the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. There was one minor confrontation between a female protester and the PCSO, but no contact was made. The protester, who was wearing a face mask as were all the others, refused to huddle with the deputy because she wanted to maintain a 6-foot separation and that the deputy was not wearing a mask, she declared.

Several protesters with signs were lined up just feet from the locked gate, blocking any potential traffic into or out of the grounds, but did not step foot onto Stinger property, the employee said.

“Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, and I respect that, I salute that. I have no issue whatsoever. Everybody’s entitled to say how they feel,” the man said. “They’re just impeding my trucks coming in and out of here. We don’t really focus on (the) border wall. We do more structural buildings and stuff like that.”

Another Stinger official said the company’s workforce includes more than 60 employees who are members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The protesters were violating a right-of-way law by blocking Stinger’s traffic gate, but that action was a minimal offense, at the worst, since they were kept off the property and Stinger workers had other access anyway and were not interfered with, City Manager Rick Miller said.

“I think it was good on their part to let them express their feelings, and I appreciate the way they handled themselves,” Miller said of Stinger and the protesters alike, adding police officers also were calm and respected their sentiments. “Obviously we have to be there in those situations.”

Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. has said the border wall project continues “to destroy … sacred sites.”

“We have an obligation, we have a duty, we have a responsibility, to protect those sites of our ancestors, sacred sites of our ancestors, and do what we can do to protect those areas,” Norris said during the National Congress of American Indians virtual forum on June 23.

Norris said the wall that is being constructed through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is disrupting burial and archeological sites sacred to his people.

In February, U.S. Customs and Border Protection contractors began work in the national monument as part of hundreds of miles of new border wall construction the Trump administration has planned on the southwestern border.

Last year a group of GOP lawmakers visited the Fisher Industries-owned construction and manufacturing company in Coolidge to see a demonstration of wall-building technology and prototypes designed for the border wall.