A wildfire in the US state of Arizona nearly tripled in size after high winds tore up a towering wall of flames outside a tourist and college town that tore down two dozen structures and chased thousands of people from their homes.
Flames reaching 30 meters (100 feet) swept through an area of scattered homes, dry grass and ponderosa pines on the outskirts of Flagstaff as wind gusts of up to 80 km/h (50 mph) pushed the fire on a major highway.
Firefighters faced high winds and extremely dry conditions as they battled the blaze, which officials said Tuesday night threatened to destroy hundreds of homes as it moved north -east toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
“I can’t stress enough how quickly this fire is moving,” True Brown, a fire management official for the Coconino National Forest, said at a news conference. “I can’t stress how important it is to leave the fire area.”
The fire forced more than 2,000 residents to flee 760 homes in Coconino County, said Patrice Horstman, chairman of the county board of supervisors.
The blaze, dubbed the “Tunnel Fire,” covered an area of some 6,474 hectares (16,000 acres) about 23 km (14 miles) north of the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, fire officials said.
“It’s good, in that it’s not heading into a heavily populated area and it’s heading into less fuel,” said Coconino National Forest spokesperson Brady Smith. “But depending on the intensity of the fire, the fire can still move through the ashes.”
About 200 firefighters battling the blaze will face a day of 30 mph (48 km/h) wind gusts and very dry weather Wednesday and Thursday, the National Weather Service said.
“The combination of gusty winds and low humidity can cause the fire to grow rapidly in size and intensity before first responders can contain it,” the service said in a fire watch advisory. released Thursday.
#BREAKING: The #TunnelFire exploded to 16,000 acres and is still at 0% containment amid high winds in the area. Evacuation orders in place for the wildfire burning just north of Flagstaff, Arizona.pic.twitter.com/HoFHhjC712 https://t.co/ZN3is0Bo0i
— Moshe Schwartz (@YWNReporter) April 20, 2022
The forest fire started in the afternoon of February 17. Investigators do not yet know what caused it and have not yet surrounded any part of the fire.
Firefighters and law enforcement went door to door telling people to evacuate but had to pull back to avoid being locked in, Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said. He said his office received a call about a man who was trapped inside his home, but firefighters were unable to reach him.
“We don’t know if he made it or not,” Driscoll said.
Various organizations worked to set up shelters for evacuees and animals, including goats and horses.
The scene was all too familiar to residents who recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned through the same area. “This time was different, right there in your backyard,” said resident Kathy Vollmer.
She and her husband grabbed their three dogs but left two cats behind as they faced what she described as a “wall of fire”.
Earlier in the day, the wildfire closed U.S. Route 89, the main route between Flagstaff in northern Arizona and communities in the Navajo Nation. High winds grounded aircraft that could drop water and fire retardants on the blaze.
Like other southwestern states affected by climate change, Arizona is experiencing an early start to its fire season. Dry grass and brush, along with scattered pine trees, are fueling the fire, officials said.
Last week, an elderly couple died in their home when a wildfire swept through Ruidoso, New Mexico, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to flee the mountain town.
Red flag warnings covered much of New Mexico on Wednesday, indicating conditions were ripe for wildfires.