FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — High winds tore up a towering wall of flames outside a northern Arizona tourist town on Tuesday, tearing apart two dozen structures and sending residents of more than 700 homes rushing to flee.
Flames reaching 100 feet (30 meters) swept through an area of scattered homes, dry grass and ponderosa pines on the outskirts of Flagstaff as wind gusts of up to 50 mph (80 km/h) pushed the fire on a major highway.
Coconino County officials told an evening news conference that 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated. About 250 structures remained at risk in the area popular with hikers and all-terrain vehicle users and where astronauts trained amid volcanic ash pits.
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, and ash rained down from the sky. The fire was moving northeast away from the more populated areas of Flagstaff, home to Northern Arizona University, and toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, the forest spokesman said. national of Coconino, Brady Smith.
“It’s good in that it’s not heading into a heavily populated area and it’s heading towards less fuel,” Smith said. “But depending on the intensity of the fire, the fire can still move through the ashes.”
Authorities won’t be able to determine if anyone was injured in the blaze until the flames die down. Firefighters and law enforcement went door to door telling people to evacuate but had to pull back to avoid being locked in, Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said.
He said his office received a call about a man who was trapped inside his home, but firefighters were unable to reach him.
“We don’t know if he made it or not,” Driscoll said.
Various organizations worked to set up shelters for evacuees and animals, including goats and horses.
The scene was all too familiar to residents who recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned through the same area.
“This time it was different, right there in your backyard,” said resident Kathy Vollmer.
She said she and her husband grabbed their three dogs but left a few cats behind as they faced what she described as a “wall of fire”.
“We just hope they’ll be okay,” she said.
Earlier in the day, the wildfire shut down US 89, the main highway between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and communities in the Navajo Nation. High winds grounded planes that could drop water and fire retardants on the blaze.
Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, cut power to about 625 customers to keep firefighters safe, a spokeswoman said.
Around 200 firefighters were battling the blazes, but more are expected as a top national leadership team takes over later this week.
The fire broke out Sunday afternoon 22 kilometers northeast of Flagstaff. Investigators do not yet know what caused it and have not yet surrounded any part of the fire.
Ali Taranto rushed to Flagstaff from Winslow, where she works at a hospital, on Tuesday to check out a property she owns that was threatened by the wildfire. She was also getting messages to check on a neighbor who she says didn’t have access to oxygen during the power outage and didn’t have the strength to manually open her garage door to evacuate.
Taranto said the neighbor was “disoriented and out of breath” when she reached her. Area firefighters helped open the garage door and the neighbor at the hospital, she said. Taranto was looking for a shelter for the neighbor’s two dogs.
By the time Taranto left the area, the highway to Flagstaff was closed and she had to drive an additional two hours to get home. At least two other neighbors did not evacuate, she said.
“Seeing flames several feet from your property line and hearing propane tanks exploding in the background was very surreal,” Taranto said. “Falling ashes. It was crazy.”
Wind is expected to be a challenge the rest of the week, 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 big increases in humidity, and at this point we’re not really expecting any precipitation either,” said meteorologist Robert Rickey.
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 in dry, hot and windy conditions.
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 regions. Scientists say climate change has made the American West much hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Elsewhere in Arizona, firefighters battled a wildfire in a sparsely populated area of the Prescott National Forest, about 10 miles south of Prescott.
Cory Carlson, the Prescott National Forest incident commander, said late Tuesday afternoon that high winds were the biggest challenge, sending embers into the air that sparked new spot fires near State Route 261, as well as the demand for crews at other fires.
“We lack resources,” he said. “There are a lot of fires in the area.”
Some areas were evacuated and a shelter was set up at Yavapai College. Carlson called on residents to obey evacuation orders.
The cause of the 600-acre (2.4 square kilometer) wildfire was under investigation.
In southern Arizona, a main road between Bisbee and Sierra Vista reopened Tuesday after being closed for about eight hours due to a brush fire in the hills above Bisbee.
By FELICIA FONSECA