Western wildfires force evacuations, shut down recreation
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A wildfire in northern Arizona crept closer to the region’s largest city Tuesday, threatening to force people from their homes.
The lightning-caused fire near Flagstaff was one of dozens that have scorched large swaths of the U.S. West and kept firefighters busy as they hold out hope that the monsoon season will deliver some significant rain.
It made a significant run Monday but slowed its growth overnight. Crews were busy Tuesday identifying features in the landscape that could help slow the blaze that has burned 38 square miles (99 square kilometers).
“There’s a lot of vegetation out there that’s very old, has not had fire in it in a very long time and now has either been stressed or killed because of the drought,” fire information officer Noel Fletcher said. “It’s a lot of standing, dead fuel.”
Firefighters have yet to corral the perimeter. Crews were dropping fire retardant to keep it from moving into a canyon where it would be more difficult to tackle, and escaping where it could make a run on flatter land. They also were working to protect private property in the forest and lookout towers.
Evacuations were in place because of several other wildfires across Arizona, affecting mostly rural residents and campers, and many local roads were closed. A portion of Interstate 10 in southern Arizona was shut down because of a wildfire there. Supervisors in Navajo County declared an emergency because of a wildfire that was threatening Heber and Overgaard.
More evacuations could go into effect if the large fire in northern Arizona continues toward Flagstaff, a mountain city with nearly 80,000 residents, a state university and an observatory where Pluto was discovered. The city is nestled among the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the U.S. with an Army depot and veterans cemetery to the west and smaller communities on the outskirts.
A top-tier national management team will take over Thursday, said Matthew McGrath, a district ranger for the Coconino National Forest.
Half of the national forests in Arizona will close entirely to the public because of wildfire danger and limited resources. The Coconino and Kaibab closures start Wednesday, and the Apache-Sitgreaves on Thursday.
The weather has been unrelenting lately, with hot and dry conditions combining with wind to fuel wildfires. The preparedness level for wildfire activity nationally was bumped up Tuesday to reflect more demand for firefighting resources.
More large wildfires were burning in Arizona than anywhere else in the country. Arizona had 14, followed by half as many in California. Utah and Colorado also had a handful of large wildfires.
Arizona already was at the highest preparedness level for wildfires. Nationally, the level rose to a 4 on a 1-5 scale Tuesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. It’s only the fourth time in the last 20 years to reach level 4 in June.
In California where several large wildfires were burning, hikers were turned away from trekking to the summit of Mount Whitney, and flames were scorching tinder dry vegetation in the rugged central coast mountains.
Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles and Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.