Fires are raging in the Southwest as Arizona firefighters brace for strong winds that will continue to spread the 32-square-mile inferno

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — Firefighters fanned out across the blackened Arizona highland landscape, digging into the ground to extinguish smoldering tree stumps and roots while helicopters carrying buckets of water buzzed overhead to fall on a massive blaze.

The work has been tedious and steady – all with the realization that the already strong winds will pick up on Friday and a postponement over the weekend could direct the fire up the hillsides or towards homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff.

The 32-square-mile (83-square-kilometer) blaze is one of half a dozen large wildfires that have raged across Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado in the past week. Forecasters have warned that warm weather, little to no rainfall and spring winds are creating a dangerous recipe for wildfires.

Those elements are “pretty much on steroids in the atmosphere for tomorrow,” said Scott Overpeck of the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “And by that we mean they’re really cranky. Everything overlaps at the same time.”

The fire in the Flagstaff area was expected to continue growing Friday, fanned by winds, said Jerolyn Byrne, a spokeswoman for the team working on the fire.

Neither officials nor local residents were able to fully gauge the damage as crews were busy fighting a spot fire and preventing flames from running up the mountainside on Thursday. If that happened, it would mean a much larger fire with long-term consequences such as erosion and flooding.

Still, spirits were lifted on Thursday when helicopters were able to drop water on the flames for the first time.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency in Flagstaff’s Coconino County on Thursday. The statement clears the way for government funding for evacuations, shelter, repairs and other expenses. However, the money cannot be used to compensate home and business owners for losses.

About 30 buildings were destroyed, but it’s still unclear how many homes were, the county sheriff’s office said Thursday.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated because of wildfires in the southwest. Popular lakes and national monuments were closed in Arizona — including Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument outside of Flagstaff — because wildfire moved directly overhead, blackening trees and burning tools and vehicles in a maintenance yard, monuments spokesman Richard Ullmann said.

Coconino National Forest has closed where wildfire burns but has not enacted broader fire restrictions or closures. A sign on a gate warns of possible loose debris, falling trees and branches, and flash flooding.

Fire restrictions go into effect Friday at New Mexico National Park Service sites including Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the west as conditions change, including earlier snowmelt and later rains in the fall, scientists said. The problems are compounded by decades of firefighting and poor forest management, along with a more than 20-year mega drought that studies link to human-caused climate change.

Residents around Flagstaff — a year-round attraction for recreation, respite from the desert heat and Northern Arizona University — questioned how a small fire reported Sunday afternoon northeast of the college town blew up in a matter of days. Matt McGrath, a district ranger at Coconino National Forest, said firefighters contained the wildfire Sunday and saw no smoke or active flames when they checked again Monday.

On Tuesday the wind was firmly under control. Flames emerged and leaped over the containment line. The residents of around 765 houses were evacuated from rural areas along with 1,000 animals.

The cause of the fire was not determined. Investigators were at the scene Thursday, off a bumpy, gravel, and unpaved US Forest Service road. In the distance, a large cloud of gray smoke was rising over the surrounding hills. There was still snow on other mountains.

Smoldering tree stumps, burnt grass, and charred trees lined the area near the wildfire.

Preston Mercer, fire protection specialist at Coconino National Forest, recalls standing on the same piece of land fighting another large fire in 2010. Like this one, this fire has taken advantage of dry vegetation and violent winds.

“The environment is not very friendly. It was blowing 70 miles an hour. Rocks hit everyone in the face. It was very smoky and we were working right in the heat,” he said Thursday from the fire line. “These guys work incredibly hard. You know the values ​​at risk. This is their community.”

Crews nearby focused on a 40-acre point fire that broke away from the main fire toward hills overlooking nearby homes. A firefighter repeatedly brandished a scraping tool as winds howled and smoke billowed through the air to reveal smoldering tree roots. He removed his glove and reached into the ground with his hand to make sure it was cool before moving on and repeating the process.

In neighboring New Mexico, crews battled multiple fires, including two that forced a small number of evacuations and one that threatened natural gas and telecommunications lines.

In Colorado, firefighters got under control of two small wildfires in the southern and northern parts of the state while struggling with high winds.

The Boulder County fire was started by the battery from a downed drone that researchers were using to study severe weather, the sheriff’s office said Thursday. Researchers used a fire extinguisher, but the fire spread quickly in high winds, authorities said. The other fire damaged or destroyed an estimated 15 buildings, including homes, in Monte Vista, a community of about 4,150 people surrounded by fields, police said Thursday.

Rocky Opliger, the incident commander of a wildfire that has forced evacuations south of Prescott, Arizona, said the conditions were some of the worst he’s seen in nearly five decades of wildfire fighting.

“It’s very early days for this type of fire behavior,” he said. “At the moment we are subject to the vagaries of the weather.”


Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Fires are raging in the Southwest as Arizona firefighters brace for strong winds that will continue to spread the 32-square-mile inferno

Dais Johnston

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