At least two dozen structures have been destroyed in a fast-moving wildfire in rural northern Arizona that shot up to 10 square miles on Tuesday, Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said during a news conference.
The county declared an emergency Tuesday when winds whipped up the flames, shutting down a major highway and grounding a plane that could drop water and fire retardant. County officials said 766 homes and 1,000 animals have been evacuated from the area.
A couple hundred homes along US 89 north of Flagstaff were evacuated as embers leaped ahead of the main fire and smoke billowed into the air in an all-too-familiar scene. Residents recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago during a much larger wildfire that burned in the same area.
Firefighters grappled with 50 mph gusts on Tuesday that pushed the wildfire over the highway and were not expected to die down much this week, officials said.
“It’s blowing hard and we’ve got ash falling on the road,” Coconino County Sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton said.
About 200 firefighters were working on the fire that appeared to be moving northeast, away from the more densely populated areas of Flagstaff, toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and volcanic ash, said Brady Smith, a spokesman for the Coconino National Forest.
“It’s good because it’s not heading towards a very populated area and it’s heading towards less fuel,” he said. “But depending on the intensity of the fire, the fire can still move through the ashes.”
A high-level national fire management team is expected to take over later this week.
Firefighters and law enforcement officials knocking on doors to warn of evacuations Tuesday were forced to retreat to avoid being trapped by flames, Paxton said. Arizona Public Service Co. shut off power to about 625 customers to keep firefighters safe, a spokeswoman said.
Red flag warnings covered much of Arizona and New Mexico on Tuesday, indicating conditions are ripe for wildfires. Residents of Mora and San Miguel counties in northern New Mexico were warned to be ready to evacuate as wildfires burned there amid dry, hot and windy conditions.
2,000 firefighters and support workers deployed
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that nearly 2,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel have been assigned to more than a dozen large wildfires in the Southwest, South and Rocky Mountain areas. Scientists say climate change has made the western US much hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
The Flagstaff fire grew rapidly, burning wood and grass. It started Sunday afternoon 14 miles northeast of the city, located in the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the US. Investigators still don’t know what caused it and haven’t yet pinned down any parts of the flames.
The Arizona Department of Transportation closed a section of US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and the far north of the state, and a main route to and from Navajo Nation communities, due to the wildfire. Various organizations worked to establish shelters for evacuees and for animals.
‘Shortness of breath’
Ali Taranto rushed to Flagstaff from Winslow, where she works at a hospital, to check out a property she owns that was threatened by the wildfire. She was also receiving messages to check on a neighbor who discovered that he did not have access to oxygen while the power was out and did not have the strength to manually open his garage door to evacuate.
Taranto said the neighbor was “disoriented and out of breath” when he caught up with her. Area firefighters helped open the garage door and the neighbor to the hospital, she said. Taranto was looking for a shelter for the neighbor’s two dogs.
When Taranto left the area, the road to Flagstaff was closed and he had to drive two more hours home. At least two other neighbors did not evacuate his property, she said.
“Seeing the flames several meters away from his property line and hearing the propane tanks exploding in the background was very surreal,” Taranto said. “Ash falling. It was crazy.”
Wind is expected to be a challenge the rest of the week, along with warmer-than-average weather and low humidity, the National Weather Service said.
“I don’t see significant decreases in wind, I don’t see large increases in humidity, and at this point we don’t expect any precipitation,” said meteorologist Robert Rickey.
Elsewhere in Arizona, firefighters battled a wildfire in a sparsely populated area of Prescott National Forest, about 10 miles south of Prescott. The cause of the 2.4 square kilometer forest fire was under investigation.