Southwest wildfires force evacuations, tighten resources

In this photo provided by the Coconino National Forest, the Tunnel Fire burns near Flagstaff, Ariz., on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. An Arizona wildfire doubled in size overnight into Wednesday, a day after heavy winds kicked up a towering wall of flames outside a northern Arizona tourist and college town, ripping through two dozen structures and sending residents of more than 700 homes scrambling to flee. (Coconino National Forest via AP)
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Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — An Arizona wildfire nearly tripled in size as relentless winds pushed the flames through neighborhoods on the outskirts of a college and tourist town, keeping hundreds of residents away from their homes and destroying more than two dozen structures.

The blaze continued its run Wednesday through dry grass and scattered Ponderosa pines around homes into volcanic cinder fields, where roots underground can combust and send small rocks flying into the air, fire officials said. Persistent spring winds and 50-mph (80-kph) gusts hindered firefighters.

“This is a heads-up for everywhere else in the state,” said fire information officer Dick Fleishman. “If you have dry grass up next to your house, it’s time to get that cleaned up.”

Fire managers are contending with tight resources as wildfires burn around the Southwest. The U.S. has 16 top-level national fire management teams, and four of those are dedicated to blazes in Arizona and New Mexico — something Fleishman said is rare this early in the wildfire season.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated because of the wildfires north of Flagstaff and south of Prescott in Arizona. 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.

Red flag warnings were on tap across New Mexico on Wednesday and through the rest of the week. Winds were expected to be lighter Wednesday in Arizona but will strengthen Thursday and Friday, said Mark Stubblefield of the National Weather Service.

The number of acres burned in the U.S. so far this year is about 30% above the 10-year average — a figure that has gone up from 20% just earlier this month as the fire danger shifted from the southern U.S. to the Southwest.

On the outskirts of Flagstaff where tourists and locals revel in hiking and horseback riding trails, camping spots, and the vast expanse of cinder fields for off-road vehicle use, flames soared as high as 100 feet (30 meters). Popular national monuments including Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki were closed because of the wildfire.

“It’s just a unique community and we’re fortunate to live here,” said Jon Stoner, who evacuated his home Tuesday. “We feel very lucky with the views we have and the surrounding forest.”

Some residents’ homes were burned to the ground, though Coconino County hasn’t said exactly how many. Officials said Tuesday evening that 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated, and about 250 structures remained threatened.

One man who reportedly was trapped in his home by the flames was able to get out, Coconino County sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton said Wednesday.

Firefighters were expected to move through neighborhoods Wednesday to cool down any smoldering spots and assess what’s most at risk. Paxton said no injuries or deaths have been reported.

The wildfire’s size has surpassed another that burned in the same area in 2010. Resident Kathy Vollmer said her husband stayed behind then, spraying down the house they’ve lived in since 1999 to protect it. But this time was different, she said, describing a wall of fire in her backyard.

The couple grabbed their three dogs but left a couple of cats behind.

“We just hope they are going to be OK,” she said.

U.S. 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and communities on the Navajo Nation, remained closed.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. It started Sunday afternoon northeast of Flagstaff. The county declared an emergency after the wildfire ballooned from 100 acres (40 hectares) Tuesday morning to over 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) by evening and to 26 square miles (67 square kilometers) by Wednesday morning.

Fire crews have yet to corral any part of it.

The surrounding mountains were shrouded in smoke and ash rained down from the sky. Residents reported hearing propane tanks bursting amid the flames.

“It was very surreal,” said Ali Taranto, who helped a woman next door evacuate.

Neighbors offered their homes to evacuees and their backyards to animals that included sheep, goats and horses. A shelter was set up at a local middle school where a community meeting was planned Wednesday evening.

Elsewhere in Arizona, a wildfire burned 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of brush and timber in the forest about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott. Several small communities that included summer homes and hunting cabins were evacuated.