Utah fire from May reignites and spreads rapidly amid heat, wind and lightning

Among the many ongoing, long-term blazes in the West, one stands out as a zombie thriving on heat, oxygen and fuel: Utah’s Left Fork Fire.

It started May 9 when a prescribed burn got out of control and grew to an estimated 100 acres, officials said. It died down and was mopped up, then it reignited and smoldered through June, said Karl Hunt, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.

Late Saturday it came to life a third time, he said, and grew to an estimated 700 acres. The area north of the state’s border with Arizona, which has had fire problems of its own, was hit with thunderstorms, including lightning, but the cause of the blaze’s second restart was under investigation.

“We’ve had very high winds in this area,” Hunt said.

With the summer solstice just two days away, the hottest season is looking as bad for wildfires as officials had predicted. The National Interagency Coordination Center said Sunday that there were four new large fires among 32 active fires, most in Alaska and the West.

Major wildfires burning Sunday included the nearly 18,000-acre Contreras Fire, 20 miles east of Sells, Arizona, which had no containment, and the more than 26,000-acre Pipeline Fire, 6 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona, with 27% containment.

On Thursday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued a declaration of emergency that unleashes new funding for the battle against the Pipeline Fire. “Windy, hot, and dry weather conditions in the area have made fire suppression efforts incredibly difficult,” he said in a statement.

The Left Fork Fire is but a speck among them, yet its resilience may bode ill for a country under multiple red flag warnings and facing historic heat before the meteorological summer.

The National Weather Service said Sunday a high-pressure system north of the Lower 48’s geographical center is creating “dangerous heat” from the Midwest to the Deep South, with some parts of the country experiencing temperatures 20 degrees and more above average for this time of year.

Seasonal heat in the Southwest was punctuated by the kind of monsoonal moisture more typical of late summer. Showers and even flooding were possible in eastern Arizona, southern Colorado and much of New Mexico, federal forecasters said.

Of the large active wildfires in the U.S. on Sunday, only four were contained, the National Interagency Coordination Center reports. The acreage consumed so far this year compared with the same time last year has nearly tripled, its data show.

David Tebbs, a commissioner in Garfield County, part of the Left Fork Fire’s footprint, reported on Facebook that five engines, a smoke jumper crew and one help crew were assigned to the restarted Left Fork Fire and that eight more crews had been requested.

The interagency firefighting crew Lone Peak Hotshots said it was also responding to the blaze.

Wind gusts expected to be as strong as 55 mph prevented fire suppression from the air, officials said. Despite the thunderstorms in the West, the fire was raging amid humidity in the single digits, according to a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources fact sheet cited by NBC affiliate KSL of Salt Lake City.

The fire was burning near Rainbow Point in Dixie National Forest, state officials said. After its May 9 start, it reached a nadir May 13, when it was 60 percent contained and under the purview of mop-up crews.

Overnight, after its restart, the wildfire grew to 325 acres, state officials said.

On Sunday its size was estimated to be double that, and it continued to grow in rough terrain that’s hard to reach, state officials said. It cast a cloud of dark smoke over an area of southern Utah.

Suzanne Ciechalski contributed.

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