Crews prepare for high winds and explosive fire growth in the West – Press Enterprise


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Firefighters fanned out across a blackened landscape in Arizona’s high country, digging into the ground to douse smoldering tree stumps and roots as helicopters buzzed overhead their heads with buckets of water to drop on a huge fire.

The work has been tedious and steady – all with the recognition that the already strong winds will pick up stronger on Friday and that a change over the weekend could turn the fire onto the hills or towards homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff .

The 32 square mile (83 square kilometer) blaze is one of half a dozen major wildfires that have swept through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado over the past week. Forecasters have warned that hot weather, little to no rainfall and spring winds create a dangerous recipe for wildfires.

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

The fire in the Flagstaff area is expected to continue growing on Friday, fanned by the wind, said Jerolyn Byrne, spokesperson for the crew working on the blaze.

Neither authorities nor residents were able to fully assess the damage, as crews were busy Thursday battling a localized fire and trying to keep flames from creeping up the mountainside. If this were to happen it would mean a much larger fire with long term consequences such as erosion and flooding.

However, the spirits went up Thursday when helicopters were able for the first time to start throwing water on the flames.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency in Coconino County in Flagstaff on Thursday. The declaration paves the way for state funding of evacuations, shelters, repairs and other expenses. However, the money cannot be used to reimburse home and business owners for losses.

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

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

The Coconino National Forest has closed where the wildfire is burning, but has not enacted restrictions or broader fire closures. A sign at a door warns of the possibility of 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 given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and later rains in the fall, scientists said. The problems are exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and poor forest management, as well as a 20-plus-year mega-drought that studies have linked to human-induced climate change.

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

On Tuesday, the wind was firmly under control. Flames emerged and jumped the containment line. Residents of some 765 homes were evacuated, along with 1,000 animals from rural neighborhoods.

The cause of the fire has not been determined. Investigators were at the site Thursday on a bumpy, gravel and U.S. Forest Service dirt road. In the distance, a large plume of greyish smoke rose over the surrounding hills. Snow was still sitting on top of other mountains.

Smoldering stumps, scorched grass and charred trees dotted the area near where the wildfire started.

Preston Mercer, a fire management specialist at the Coconino National Forest, recalls standing on the same ground in 2010, battling another large fire. Like this one, this fire took advantage of dry vegetation and strong winds.

“The environment is not very friendly. It was blowing at 70 mph. The stones hit everyone in the face. It was very smoky and we were working straight through the heat,” he said Thursday from the line of fire. “These guys work incredibly hard. They know the values ​​at risk. It is their community.

Nearby crews focused on a 100-acre (40-hectare) spot fire that broke away from the main blaze towards the hills overlooking nearby homes. A firefighter repeatedly swung a scraping tool as the winds howled and smoke swirled through the air to reveal smoking tree roots. He took off his glove and plunged his hand into the ground to make sure it was cool before continuing and repeating the process.

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

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

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

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

“It’s very early to have this kind of fiery behavior,” he said. “Right now, 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.