Arizona wildfire triples in size, sending hundreds of families fleeing


An Arizona wildfire more than tripled in size as relentless winds pushed the flames through neighbourhoods on the outskirts of a college and tourist town, keeping hundreds of residents away from their homes and destroying more than two dozen structures.

The fire continued its run Wednesday through 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. Persistent spring winds and 80 km/h gusts hindered firefighters.

“This is a heads-up for everywhere else in the state,” said fire information officer Dick Fleishman. “If you have dry grass up next to your house, it’s time to get that cleaned up.”

Fire managers are contending with tight resources as wildfires burn around the Southwest. The U.S. has 16 top-level national fire management teams, and four of those are dedicated to fires in Arizona and New Mexico — something Fleishman said is rare this early in the wildfire season.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes because of the wildfires north of Flagstaff and south of Prescott in Arizona.

A wind-driven wildfire threatens a home on the outskirts of Flagstaff on Tuesday. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun/The Associated Press)

Fires in several states

In New Mexico, the Mora County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuations for more residents as winds fuelled a fire that has burned more than 36 square kilometres since Sunday. Meanwhile, another fire was sparked Wednesday afternoon in a wooded area along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque.

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 city of about 4,150 people in the southern part of the state, as well as near Longmont. Flames and billowing smoke could be seen on a street surrounded by buildings as fire crews responded, according to video from a reporter for the Alamosa Citizen.

A man lifts a goat into the bed of his pickup on Tuesday. The fire has forced the evacuation of more than 700 homes and about 1,000 animals from the area. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun/The Associated Press)

In Arizona, authorities won’t be able to determine whether anyone was injured in the wildfire north of Flagstaff until flames subside. Firefighters and law enforcement officers went door to door telling people to evacuate but had to pull out to avoid getting boxed in, said Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll.

He said his office got a call about a man who was trapped inside his house, but firefighters couldn’t get to him.

“We don’t know if he made it out,” Driscoll said.

Some homes were burned to the ground, though Coconino County hasn’t said exactly how many.

Heavy winds kicked up a towering wall of flames outside the northern Arizona tourist and college town, ripping through two dozen structures. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun/The Associated Press)

High winds ground fire-fighting aircraft

Various organizations worked to set up shelters for evacuees and animals, including goats and horses.

Residents recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned in the same area.

“This time was different, right there in your backyard,” said resident Kathy Vollmer.

She said she and her husband grabbed their three dogs but left a couple of cats behind as they faced what she described as a “wall of fire.”

“We just hope they are going to be OK,” she said.

U.S. Route 89, the main road between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and communities on the Navajo Nation, remained closed. The high winds grounded aircraft that could drop water and fire retardant on the flames.

Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, shut off power to about 625 customers to keep firefighters safe, a spokeswoman said.

About 200 firefighters were battling the flames but more are expected as a top-level national management team takes over later this week.

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