FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A wildfire in Arizona doubled in size overnight through Wednesday, a day after high winds lifted a towering wall of flames outside a northern tourist and college town of Arizona, tearing down two dozen structures and sending residents of more than 700 homes scrambling to flee.
Flames reaching 100 feet (30 meters) on Tuesday swept through an area of scattered homes, dry grass and ponderosa pines in a rural area on the outskirts of Flagstaff as gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph ) pushed the fire. a major highway.
Weather conditions were more favorable Wednesday with light breezes before a return to stronger winds Thursday “approaching critical levels,” said Mark Stubblefield, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Flagstaff.
No significant precipitation is forecast for next week, Stubblefield said.
Coconino County officials said at a Tuesday night 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) Tuesday morning to more than 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) by evening and 26 square miles (67 square kilometers) Wednesday morning.
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 out,” Driscoll said.
Various organizations worked to set up shelters for evacuees and animals, including goats and horses.
Residents recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned in the same area.
“This time it was different, right there in your backyard,” resident Kathy Vollmer said.
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 route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona and Navajo Nation communities. 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 high-level 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 crews have not surrounded any part of the fire.
Ali Taranto rushed to Flagstaff on Tuesday from Winslow, where she works at a hospital, to check out a property she owns that was threatened by the wildfire. She was also receiving messages to check if a neighbor didn’t have access to oxygen during the power outage and didn’t have the strength to manually open their garage door to evacuate.
Taranto said the neighbor was “disoriented and out of breath” when she reached her. Firefighters helped open the garage door and the neighbor in 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.”
Red flag warnings covered much of New Mexico on Wednesday, 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 Wednesday that more than 2,300 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.”
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.