Wildfires in the Southwest force evacuations and reduce resources
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — An Arizona wildfire more than tripled in size as relentless winds blew flames into neighborhoods on the outskirts of a college and tourist town, evicting hundreds of residents and destroying more than two dozens of houses and other structures.
The blaze continued on Wednesday through dry grass and scattered ponderosa pines around homes in fields of volcanic ash, where underground roots can burn and send small rocks flying through the air, firefighters said . Persistent spring winds and gusts of 80 km/h hampered firefighters.
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Thursday, which means wind will be conducive to rapid fire growth, said Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service. A strong front is moving through the region on Friday.
“It’s a good/bad news scenario,” he said. “The good news is that temperatures will be cooler, relative humidities will increase. Bad news, the winds will be even stronger on Friday.
Operations section chief Steven Van Kirk said planes capable of dropping water and fire retardants on the blaze were unable to fly on Wednesday due to high winds.
“So you can imagine what the next two days will bring,” he said.
Fire managers are grappling with limited resources as wildfires burn through the southwest. The United States has 16 top-level national fire management teams, and four of them are dedicated to fires in Arizona and New Mexico – something fire intelligence officer Dick Fleishman is rare in. at the start of the forest fire season.
Hundreds of people have been evacuated due to wildfires north of Flagstaff and south of Prescott, Arizona.
“This is a warning for everywhere else in the state,” Fleishman said. “If you have dry grass next to your house, it’s time to clean it up.”
In New Mexico, the Mora County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuations for more residents as winds fueled a blaze that has burned more than 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) since Sunday. Meanwhile, another fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in a wooded area along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque.
Red flag warnings were issued across New Mexico on Wednesday and through the rest of the week, and in parts of northern Arizona on Thursday. Winds are expected to strengthen Thursday and Friday, said Mark Stubblefield of the National Weather Service.
In Colorado, new wildfires prompted evacuations in Monte Vista, a town of about 4,150 people in the south of the state, as well as nearby Longmont. Monte Vista Police Chief George Dingfelder confirmed that structures were lost. He said investigators had “no idea” of the number and there were no reports of injuries or missing people. The progression of the fire was stopped and the teams extinguished the hot spots. Earlier, billowing flames and smoke could be seen on a street surrounded by buildings as fire crews responded, according to video by an Alamosa Citizen reporter.
“Almost immediately, some structures caught fire. We had a hard time staying in front of that fire and staying out of the way at times because the winds and stuff were so strong,” Dingfelder said.
He said investigators don’t yet know what caused the fire, which has scorched about 17 acres.
The number of acres burned in the United States so far this year is about 30% above the 10-year average – a figure that has risen from 20% just at the start of the month, as the danger of The fire moved from the southern United States to the southwest, where above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation combined with spring winds to increase the chances of more catastrophic fires.
On the outskirts of Flagstaff, where tourists and locals alike revel in hiking and horseback riding trails, campsites and the vast expanse of ash fields for all-terrain vehicle use, flames have soared up to 100 feet (30 meters). Popular national landmarks including Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki were closed due to the wildfire.
“It’s just a unique community and we’re lucky to live here,” said Jon Stoner, who evacuated his home on Tuesday. “We feel very lucky with the views we have and the surrounding forest.”
Homes of some residents were set on fire, though Coconino County did not say how many. Officials said Tuesday evening that 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated and about 250 structures remained at risk.
About 200 residents packed into an auditorium for a community meeting Wednesday night at a college that also serves as a shelter. Some have lost their homes and feared finding temporary accommodation in a city where rental prices have skyrocketed in recent years. A woman said she had been evacuated from the forest where she was camping and wondered when she could get her things back.
A man believed to have been trapped in his home by the flames was able to get out, Coconino County Sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton said Wednesday. No injuries or deaths were reported.
Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said he cannot commit to a time when residents will be allowed to return home.
“There are always active firefighters in these areas, and we need to make sure you can get in there safely,” he said.
US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and Navajo Nation communities, remained closed.
The fire started Sunday afternoon northeast of Flagstaff and its cause is under investigation. The county declared an emergency after the wildfire grew from 100 acres (40 hectares) on Tuesday morning to more than 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) by evening. It was estimated at over 30 square miles (77 square kilometers) on Wednesday afternoon.
Fire crews have not yet surrounded any part.
The surrounding mountains were shrouded in smoke as ash fell from the sky. Residents reported hearing propane tanks burst amid the flames.
Early Tuesday, Lisa Wells saw a puff of smoke outside her window. Soon the smoke blackened, the wind picked up strength, and entire trees were consumed by the flames. In what seemed like seconds, her family went from being ready to leave to fleeing. Wells took medication and the family moved to safety with their alpacas, horses and dogs, but left a few animals behind.
“It was a miracle people got out because we had so little time,” Wells said, adding that their house and barn were engulfed in flames moments after they left. The family’s actual birds and goats did not survive the fire. Wells and her family are now staying at a hotel where their dogs are also welcome.
At a community meeting on Wednesday, Matt McGrath, a district ranger in the Coconino National Forest, said banning campfires is not a silver bullet and restricted those who pay attention. But he said the agency is talking with other agencies and taking weather conditions into consideration, noting they may issue blanket bans “before Memorial Day.”
Elsewhere in Arizona, a wildfire burned 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of brush and wood in the forest about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott. Several small communities that included summer residences and hunting cabins were evacuated.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.