FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – At least two dozen structures were destroyed in a fast-moving wildfire in rural northern Arizona that grew to more than 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) on Tuesday, the county sheriff said of Coconino, Jim Driscoll, at a press conference.
The county declared an emergency on Tuesday as winds whipped flames, closed a major highway and grounded planes that could drop water and fire retardants.
County officials said 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated. More than 2,000 people live in the area, officials said.
A few hundred homes are still under threat as smoke billowed into the air in an all-too-familiar scene. Residents recalled rushing to pack and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned in the same area.
Driscoll said the sheriff’s office received a call saying a man was trapped in his home, but firefighters couldn’t reach him. They don’t know if he survived.
The length of the flames can reach 100 feet (30 meters) high, the US Forest Service said. On Tuesday, firefighters dealt with 50 mph (80 km/h) gusts that pushed the wildfire onto the highway and were not expected to stop much this week, authorities said.
“It’s blowing hard and we have ash falling on the highway,” Coconino County Sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton said.
About 200 firefighters were working on the blaze that appeared to be moving northeast from the most populated areas of Flagstaff, toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and volcanic ash, the Coconino National Forest spokesperson said. , Brady Smith.
“It’s good in that it’s not heading towards a heavily populated area, and it’s heading towards less fuel,” he said. “But depending on the intensity of the fire, the fire can still move through the ashes.”
A high-level national fire management team is expected to take over later this week.
Firefighters and law enforcement who were knocking on doors to warn of evacuations on Tuesday were forced to retreat to avoid being trapped by flames, Paxton said. Arizona Public Service Co. cut power to about 625 customers to keep firefighters safe, a spokeswoman said.
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.
The fire in Flagstaff was estimated at 100 acres (40 hectares) early Tuesday, but quickly grew to 9.3 square miles (24 square kilometers), burning wood and grass. It began Sunday afternoon 22 kilometers northeast of the city nestled in the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the United States. Investigators do not yet know what caused it and have not yet surrounded any part of the fire.
The Arizona Department of Transportation closed a section of US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and the far north of the state, and a main route to and from Navajo Nation communities, because of the Forest fire. Various organizations worked to set up shelters for the evacuees and for the animals.
Ali Taranto rushed to Flagstaff from Winslow, where she works at a hospital, 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 freeway leading 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.
Elsewhere in Arizona, firefighters battled a wildfire in a sparsely populated area of the Prescott National Forest, about 10 miles south of Prescott. The cause of the 600-acre (2.4 square kilometer) wildfire was under investigation.
Some communities were evacuated and shelter set up at Yavapai College.
In southern Arizona, a main road between Bisbee and Sierra Vista reopened Tuesday after being closed for about eight hours overnight due to a brush fire in the hills above Bisbee.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.