FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A wildfire in Arizona more than tripled in size as relentless winds blew flames into neighborhoods on the outskirts of a college and tourist town, pushing hundreds of residents from their homes and destroying more than two dozen structures.
The blaze continued on Wednesday through dry grass and scattered ponderosa pines around homes in fields of volcanic ash, where underground roots can burn and send small rocks flying through the air, firefighters said . Persistent spring winds and gusts of 80 km/h hampered firefighters.
“This is a warning for everywhere else in the state,” said fire information officer Dick Fleishman. “If you have dry grass next to your house, it’s time to clean it up.”
Fire managers are grappling with limited resources as wildfires burn through the southwest. The United States has 16 top-level national fire management teams, and four of them are dedicated to fires in Arizona and New Mexico — which Fleishman said is rare at the start of wildfire season. .
Hundreds of people have been evacuated due to wildfires north of Flagstaff and south of Prescott, Arizona.
In New Mexico, the Mora County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuations for more residents as winds fueled a blaze that has burned more than 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) since Sunday. Meanwhile, another fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in a wooded area along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque.
Red flag warnings were issued across New Mexico on Wednesday and through the rest of the week. Winds were expected to be lighter Wednesday in Arizona but will strengthen Thursday and Friday, said Mark Stubblefield of the National Weather Service.
In Colorado, new wildfires prompted evacuations in Monte Vista, a town of about 4,150 people in the south of the state, as well as nearby Longmont. Flames and billowing smoke could be seen on a street surrounded by buildings as fire crews responded, according to video by an Alamosa Citizen reporter.
The number of acres burned in the United States so far this year is about 30% above the 10-year average – a figure that has risen from 20% just at the start of the month, as the danger of The fire moved from the southern United States to the southwest, where above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation combined with spring winds to increase the chances of more catastrophic fires.
On the outskirts of Flagstaff, where tourists and locals alike revel in hiking and horseback riding trails, campsites and the vast expanse of ash fields for all-terrain vehicle use, flames have soared up to 100 feet (30 meters). Popular national landmarks including Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki were closed due to the wildfire.
“It’s just a unique community and we’re lucky to live here,” said Jon Stoner, who evacuated his home on Tuesday. “We feel very lucky with the views we have and the surrounding forest.”
Homes of some residents were set on fire, though Coconino County did not say how many. Officials said Tuesday evening that 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated and about 250 structures remained at risk.
A man believed to have been trapped in his home by the flames was able to get out, Coconino County Sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton said Wednesday.
Firefighters were expected to move through neighborhoods on Wednesday to cool burning spots and assess what was most at risk. Paxton said no injuries or fatalities were reported.
The size of the wildfire surpassed another that burned in the same area in 2010. Resident Kathy Vollmer said her husband stayed behind at the time, spraying the house they had lived in since 1999 to protect it. But this time it was different, she said, describing a wall of fire in her garden.
The couple grabbed their three dogs but left a few cats behind.
“We just hope they’ll be okay,” she said.
US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and Navajo Nation communities, remained closed.
The fire started Sunday afternoon northeast of Flagstaff and its cause is under investigation. The county declared an emergency after the wildfire grew from 100 acres (40 hectares) on Tuesday morning to more than 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) by evening. It was estimated at over 30 square miles (77 square kilometers) on Wednesday afternoon.
Fire crews have not yet surrounded any part.
The surrounding mountains were shrouded in smoke as ash fell from the sky. Residents reported hearing propane tanks burst amid the flames.
“It was very surreal,” said Ali Taranto, who helped a neighbor evacuate.
Neighbors offered their homes to evacuees and their backyards to animals, including sheep, goats and horses. A shelter was set up at a local college where a community meeting was scheduled for Wednesday evening.
Elsewhere in Arizona, a wildfire burned 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of brush and wood in the forest about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott. Several small communities that included summer residences and hunting cabins were evacuated.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.