FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Firefighters fanned out across blackened landscape in Arizona’s high country, digging into the ground to put out smoldering tree stumps and roots as helicopters buzzed overhead with buckets of water to drop on a massive blaze.
The work has been tedious and steady — all with the recognition that already strong winds will become stronger Friday and a shift over the weekend could turn the blaze back toward a mountainous tourist town.
The 32-square-mile (83-square kilometer) blaze outside Flagstaff is one of a half-dozen major wildfires that have raced across Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado over the past week. Forecasters have warned that above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation combined with spring winds have elevated the chances for more catastrophic fires.
The elements needed for critical fire weather are “pretty much on steroids in the atmosphere for tomorrow,” said Scott Overpeck with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “And by that we mean they are really cranked up. Everything is really overlapping together at the same time.”
Red flag warnings were issued Thursday for much of northern Arizona and large portions of New Mexico as state and federal officials scrambled to get more crews on the front lines.
With expected wind conditions, “it will prove challenging to put in those containment lines to stop fire growth,” said Jerolyn Byrne, a spokesperson for the team working the Flagstaff-area fire. “We’ll see some growth on the fire.”
Neither officials nor residents have been able to fully survey the damage near Flagstaff, as crews on Thursday were busy wrestling a spot fire and trying to keep the flames from running up the mountainside. If that were to happen, it would mean a much bigger fire with long-term consequences such as erosion and flooding.
Still, spirits were lifted Thursday as helicopters for the first time were able to start dropping water on the flames.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Flagstaff’s Coconino County. The declaration clears the way for state funding to be used for evacuations, shelter, repairs and other expenses. However, the money can’t be used to reimburse home and business owners for their losses.
Hundreds of people have been evacuated because of wildfires burning in the Southwest. Popular lakes and national monuments have been closed in Arizona — some because fire has moved directly over them. Local and federal land managers also have been imposing burn bans and fire restrictions on public lands.
Wildfire has become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall, scientist have said. The problems are exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and poor forest management along with a more than 20-year megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
Residents around Flagstaff questioned how a small blaze reported northeast of the college town Sunday afternoon ballooned to more than 30 square miles (77 square kilometers) in a matter of days. Matt McGrath, a district ranger on the Coconino National Forest, said firefighters had corralled the wildfire Sunday and didn’t see any smoke or active flames when they checked on it again Monday.
By Tuesday, the wind was firmly in control. Flames emerged and jumped the containment line.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Smoldering stumps dotted the area where the fire was believed to have started.
Preston Mercer, a fire management specialist with the Coconino National Forest, remembers standing on the same patch of ground in 2010, fighting another large blaze. Like that one, this fire has been taking advantage of dry vegetation and fierce winds.
“The environment is not very friendly. It was blowing 70 mph. Rocks were hitting everybody in the face. It was very smoky and we were working directly in the heat,” he said of the conditions this week. “These guys are working incredibly hard. They know the values at risk. This is their community.”
In neighboring New Mexico, crews were battling several fires, including two that had forced a small number of evacuations and one that was threatening natural gas and telecommunication lines.
The fire danger also remained high in southern Colorado, where a wildfire destroyed an unknown number of homes on Wednesday in Monte Vista, a community of about 4,150 people surrounded by farm fields. Despite strong winds, firefighters stopped the fire from spreading by the evening but hot spots remained.
Officials there said they were still assessing the damage Thursday but noted that six families had been displaced by the fire.
About 25 structures have been lost in the Flagstaff-area fire. Coconino County officials late Wednesday pointed residents to a system where they could seek help with food, temporary housing and other needs. Some 765 homes were evacuated.
Rocky Opliger, the incident commander on a wildfire that has burned about 3 square miles (7 square kilometers) and forced evacuations south of Prescott, Arizona, said the conditions are some of the worst he’s seen in nearly five decades of fighting wildland fires.
“This is very early to have this kind of fire behavior,” he said. “Right now we are on the whims of 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.