Warm, dry, breezy weather to challenge fire crews in Arizona
Fire crews battling a pair of wildfires in northern Arizona were expecting some growth Thursday because of warm, dry and breezy conditions, but rain that could help quell the blazes is on its way.
Both blazes were moving through grass, brush and pine trees on the northern outskirts of Flagstaff, a mountainous city that’s home to Northern Arizona University and the observatory where Pluto was discovered. It’s also a popular respite from the sweltering heat in the low deserts, including Phoenix.
The larger fire has burned more than 38 square miles (100 square kilometers), destroying one home and another structure. It was 27% contained Thursday, down slightly from a day earlier because of burnout operations, fire information officer Mike Reichling said.
The blaze has overlapped some of the footprint of a wildfire that started on Easter Sunday and destroyed 30 homes and other structures while consuming about 30 square miles (78 square kilometers) of forest, chaparral and grassland.
A smaller fire in northern Arizona has burned more than 8 square miles (21 square kilometers) and was 11% contained.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday declared a state of emergency because of the fires and allocated $200,000 to the state emergency management department to help respond and recover from the blazes. This allows the state forester and other agencies to provide other assistance as needed and provide disaster relief.
“For a community still recovering from the path of the Tunnel Fire in April, this new blaze is a reminder for all Arizonans to be vigilant and safe this wildfire season,” Ducey said.
The forecast in the Flagstaff area calls for a chance of showers and thunderstorms starting Friday and throughout the weekend, which could help suppress the wildfires. Flooding and dry lightning that could spark new blazes also are concerns.
Some evacuation orders were still in place because of the wildfires, including for the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.
Parts of the Coconino and Kaibab national forests will be closed starting Friday, including popular trails and camping areas, because of the wildfire danger. Forest officials said more extensive or even full forest closures could come if conditions worsen. Campfires aren’t allowed anywhere in the forests under current restrictions.
Authorities have reopened U.S. Route 89, the primary route between northern Arizona and the Navajo Nation up into Utah. Drivers also use it to get to the east rim of the Grand Canyon.
Tall, blackened trees lined the highway, some of which fell over from the fierce winds that fueled the wildfire in the first couple of days, Reichling said.
“It wasn’t scorched earth, but it was burnt,” Reichling said. “It cleaned up the forest on the understory, so hopefully a lot of those trees will bounce back.”
Nationwide, three dozen active large wildfires have burned 2,186 square miles (5,616 square kilometers) — much of it in the U.S. Southwest. New Mexico’s two largest fires have now charred more than 1,027 square miles (2,659 square kilometers) of tinder-dry forests in northern and southern parts of the state. Nearly 7,200 wildland firefighters and support personnel and working the blazes.
Multiple states had early starts to the wildfire season this spring. Climate change and an enduring drought have fanned the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this story.