Crews prepare for strong winds and growing explosive fires in the west

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Firefighters fanned out across a blackened landscape in Arizona’s high country, digging into the ground to douse smoldering tree stumps and roots as helicopters buzzed overhead their heads with buckets of water to drop on a huge fire.

The work has been tedious and steady – all with the recognition that already strong winds will pick up stronger on Friday and that a change over the weekend could turn the blaze back to a mountainous tourist town.

The 32 square mile (83 square kilometer) blaze outside Flagstaff is one of half a dozen major wildfires that have swept through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado during the last week. Forecasters have warned that above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall combined with spring winds have raised the chances of more catastrophic fires.

The elements needed for critical fire weather are “pretty much on steroids in the atmosphere for tomorrow,” said Scott Overpeck of the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “And by that we mean they’re really excited. It’s all really overlapping at the same time.

Red flag warnings were issued Thursday for much of northern Arizona and large parts of New Mexico as state and federal authorities raced to get more crews to the front lines.

With the forecast wind conditions, “it will be difficult to get those containment lines in place to stop the fire from growing,” said Jerolyn Byrne, spokesperson for the team working on the Flagstaff-area fire. “We will see growth on fire.”

Neither authorities nor residents were able to fully assess the damage near Flagstaff, as crews were busy Thursday battling a spot fire and keeping flames from creeping up the mountainside. If this were to happen it would mean a much larger fire with long term consequences such as erosion and flooding.

However, the spirits went up Thursday when helicopters were able for the first time to start throwing water on the flames.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency in Coconino County in Flagstaff on Thursday. The declaration paves the way for the use of public funds for evacuations, shelters, repairs and other expenses. However, the money cannot be used to reimburse home and business owners for their losses.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated due to wildfires burning in the southwest. Popular lakes and national monuments have been closed in Arizona, some because fire moved directly on them. Local and federal land managers have also imposed burning bans and fire restrictions on public lands.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and later rains in the fall, scientists said. The problems are exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and poor forest management, as well as a 20-plus-year mega-drought that studies have linked to human-induced climate change.

Flagstaff residents wondered how a small fire reported northeast of the college town on Sunday afternoon grew to more than 30 square miles (77 square kilometers) in a matter of days. Matt McGrath, a district ranger in the Coconino National Forest, said firefighters surrounded the wildfire on Sunday and saw no smoke or active flames when they checked it again on Monday.

On Tuesday, the wind was firmly under control. Flames emerged and jumped the containment line.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Smoldering stumps dotted the area where the fire is believed to have started.

Preston Mercer, a fire management specialist at the Coconino National Forest, recalls standing on the same ground in 2010, battling another large fire. Like this one, this fire took advantage of dry vegetation and strong winds.

“The environment is not very friendly. It was blowing at 70 mph. The stones hit everyone in the face. It was very smoky and we were working straight through the heat,” he said of the conditions this week. “These guys work incredibly hard. They know the values ​​at risk. It is their community.

In neighboring New Mexico, crews were battling multiple fires, including two that forced a small number of evacuations and one that threatened natural gas and telecommunications lines.

Fire danger also remained high in southern Colorado, where a wildfire on Wednesday destroyed an unknown number of homes in Monte Vista, a community of about 4,150 people surrounded by agricultural fields. Despite strong winds, firefighters stopped the spread of the fire in the evening but hot spots remained.

Officials said they were still assessing the damage on Thursday, but noted that six families had been displaced by the fire.

About 25 structures were lost in the Flagstaff area fire. On Wednesday evening, Coconino County officials told residents about a system for requesting assistance with food, temporary housing and other needs. Some 765 homes were evacuated.

Rocky Opliger, the incident commander on a wildfire that has burned about 3 square miles (7 square kilometers) and forced evacuations south of Prescott, Ariz., said conditions are among the worst he has ever seen. seen in nearly five decades of fighting forest fires.

“It’s very early to have this kind of fire behavior,” he said. “Right now, we are subject to the vagaries of the weather.”

Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.

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