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Wind will be a force to reckon with on Southwest wildfires

In this photo provided by the Coconino National Forest, the Tunnel Fire burns near Flagstaff, Ariz., on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
In this photo provided by the Coconino National Forest, the Tunnel Fire burns near Flagstaff, Ariz., on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Fire managers across the Southwest are reckoning with strong winds that forecasters say could lead to explosive growth in wildfires this week. Hundreds of people were evacuated in numerous blazes that have scorched structures and signaled an early start to the fire season.

A wildfire on the outskirts of Flagstaff continued its run Wednesday though dry grass and scattered Ponderosa pines around homes into volcanic cinder fields, where roots underground can combust and send small rocks flying into the air, fire officials said. Aircraft was grounded for a second day due to high winds, and a major northern Arizona highway remained closed as smoke shrouded the air.

Winds are expected to ramp up Thursday after easing up a bit Wednesday. Friday has a chance of precipitation but even stronger winds followed by a dry forecast into next week, said Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service.

"Folks, we have entered our fire season," he said. "It's going to be a long one this year."

Resources are tight around the Southwest as multiple wildfires burn. Four of the 16 top-level national fire management teams are dedicated to blazes in Arizona and New Mexico — something fire information officer Dick Fleishman said is rare this early in the season.

At a community meeting in Flagstaff, residents questioned how a small blaze reported northeast of the city Sunday afternoon ballooned to more than 30 square miles (77 square kilometers) by Wednesday afternoon. 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, leaving firefighters and McGrath to ask themselves if they could have done something differently, he said.

"I can't tell you for sure, but I don't think so," McGrath said. "And I know that's not a satisfying answer with everything you're going through right now."

The cause of the fire is under investigation. Firefighters have yet to corral any part of it.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated in Arizona and New Mexico because of wildfires.

"This is a heads-up for everywhere else in the state," said Fleishman. "If you have dry grass up next to your house, it's time to get that cleaned up."

In New Mexico, the Mora County Sheriff's Office expanded evacuation orders as winds fueled a 14 square-mile (36 square-kilometer) blaze. A new fire emerged Wednesday in a wooded area along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque.

In Colorado, new wildfires prompted evacuations in Monte Vista, a city of about 4,150 people in the southern part of the state, and near Longmont. An undetermined number of structures burned but no one was injured, authorities said.

"We struggled at times to stay in front of this fire and stay out of the way of it because the winds and stuff were so strong," said Monte Vista Police Chief George Dingfelder.

The number of acres burned in the U.S. so far this year is about 30% above the 10-year average — a figure that has gone up from 20% just earlier this month as the fire danger shifted from the southern U.S. to the Southwest. Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation have combined with spring winds to elevate the risk of catastrophic fires.

On the outskirts of Flagstaff where tourists and locals revel in hiking and horseback riding trails, camping spots, and the vast expanse of cinder fields for off-road vehicle use, flames soared as high as 100 feet (30 meters) at times. Popular national monuments including Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki were closed because of the wildfire.

"It's just a unique community and we're fortunate to live here," said Jon Stoner, who evacuated his home Tuesday. "We feel very lucky with the views we have and the surrounding forest."

About 200 residents attended the community meeting Wednesday in Flagstaff at a middle school that's also being used as a shelter. Some lost their homes — part of the estimated 25 structures that have been lost — and were worried about finding temporary housing in a city where rental prices have exploded in recent years. One woman who was evacuated from the forest where she was camping wondered when she might be able to retrieve her things.

Coconino County officials pointed residents to a system set up to offer assistance. Sheriff Jim Driscoll couldn't say when residents might be allowed back home. Some 765 homes were evacuated.

"There's still active firefighting going on in those areas, and we need to have it safe for you to go in," he said.

U.S. 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and communities on the Navajo Nation, remained closed.

Other residents asked when the U.S. Forest Service would begin restricting campfires or closing the forest to all visitors. McGrath said banning campfires isn't a silver bullet but ensured the audience that the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies already are talking about when to enact restrictions.

Lisa Wells is among the residents whose home was burned. She said she saw a puff of smoke outside her window Tuesday. Before long, the smoke blackened, the wind gained strength and entire trees were being consumed by flames.

In what felt like seconds, her family moved from being ready to go to fleeing. Wells grabbed medication, and the family got themselves, their alpacas, horses and dogs to safety, but left some animals behind.

"It was a miracle that people got out because we had so little time," Wells said.

Birds, goats and chickens they left behind didn't survive the fire. The family now is staying at a hotel where their dogs also are welcome.

Elsewhere in Arizona, a wildfire burned 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of brush and timber in the forest about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott. Several small communities that included summer homes and hunting cabins were evacuated.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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