At least two dozen buildings have been destroyed in a rapidly progressing wildfire in rural northern Arizona that spread to nearly 15 square miles on Tuesday, Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said at a news conference.
The county declared an emergency on Tuesday when winds shot up flames, closing off a major highway and grounding planes capable of dropping water and fire retardants. County officials said 766 homes and 1,000 animals have been evacuated from the area.
Several hundred homes along US 89, north of Flagstaff, were evacuated as embers jumped in front of the main fire and smoke rose into the air in an all-too-familiar scene. Residents recalled having to scramble to pack their bags and flee ten years ago during a much larger wildfire that burned down the same area.
Firefighters faced gusts of 80 kilometers per hour on Tuesday that pushed the bushfire across the highway and were not expected to hold up much this week, authorities said.
“The wind is blowing hard and there’s ash falling on the highway,” said Jon Paxton, spokesman for the Coconino County Sheriff.
About 200 firefighters were working on the fire that appeared to be moving northeast, away from the more populous areas of Flagstaff, toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and volcanic embers, Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith said.
“It’s good because it’s not moving toward a densely populated area, but toward less fuel,” he said. “But depending on the intensity of the fire, the fire can still move over embers.”
Later this week, a top-level national firefighting team is expected to take over.
Fire and law enforcement agencies that knocked on doors Tuesday to warn of evacuations had to pull back to avoid being trapped by the 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, signaling conditions are ripe for wildfires. Residents in northern New Mexico’s Mora and San Miguel counties were warned to be ready to evacuate as wildfires burned in dry, hot and windy conditions there.
2,000 firefighters and support personnel deployed
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that nearly 2,000 wildfire fighters and support personnel had been assigned to more than a dozen major wildfires in the Southwest, South and Rocky Mountain areas. Scientists say climate change has made the western U.S. much warmer and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and devastating.
The Flagstaff fire grew rapidly and scorched wood and grass. It started Sunday afternoon 22 kilometers northeast of the city, nestled in the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the US. Investigators do not yet know what caused it and have not yet found any part of the flames.
The Arizona Department of Transportation has closed a portion of US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and the far north of the state, and a primary route to and from the Navajo Nation communities because of the wildfire. Several organizations worked to set up shelters for evacuees and for animals.
‘Gasping for air’
Ali Taranto rushed to Flagstaff from Winslow, where she works at a hospital, to check on a property threatened by the wildfire. She also received messages to make sure a neighbor couldn’t access oxygen while the power was off and didn’t have the strength to manually open her garage door to evacuate.
Taranto said the neighbor was “disoriented and gasping” when she reached her. Firefighters in the area helped open the garage door and take the neighbor to the hospital, she said. Taranto was looking for a shelter for the neighbors’ two dogs.
By the time Taranto left the area, the highway to Flagstaff was closed and she still had a two-hour drive home. At least two other neighbors have not evacuated their properties, she said.
“To see flames a few feet away from your property line and hear the propane tanks burst in the background was very surreal,” Taranto said. Ash falls down. It was crazy.’
Winds are expected to present a challenge for the rest of the week, along with warmer-than-average weather and low humidity, the National Weather Service said.
“I don’t see a significant decrease in wind, I don’t see any major increases in humidity, and right now we don’t really expect precipitation,” said meteorologist Robert Rickey.
Elsewhere in Arizona, firefighters fought a wildfire in a sparsely populated area of the Prescott National Forest about 10 miles south of Prescott. The cause of the 2.4 square kilometer wildfire was investigated.