Fueled by gusty winds across drought-stricken isolated terrain, wildfires north of Flagstaff, Arizona erupted on Monday, with officials estimating more than 24,000 acres (9,700 hectares) had been blackened by Tuesday morning.
Fire crews battling the blaze faced intense conditions that caused extreme fire behavior and sent huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky.
“Due to high winds, no air assets could fly safely,” incident commander Aaron Graeser said at a press conference Monday evening. “We don’t rely on air assets to succeed, there are always people on the ground no matter what. However, it can certainly give us a tactical and operational advantage when we have it.
By Tuesday, the winds had died down and planes were on the move again, raising hopes that progress could be made on the fire as conditions were more favourable.
But the larger blaze, known as the Pipeline Fire, which started on Sunday, and two smaller fires that started nearby on Monday and then joined together, are still at 0% containment. Graeser said evacuations and protecting structures were top priorities for the approximately 600 firefighters on the ground. About 2,500 homes were evacuated and two structures burned down, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office said.
“On a day like today, with winds doing what they did, with the fuel conditions we have,” Graeser said, “the No. 1 value at risk is the public we serve.”
The fire has also spread through the Coconino Peaks Wilderness Area and into tribal lands and cultural sites to the north, Graeser said.
Townspeople looked towards the mountains as smoke billowed into the air and winds howled, some scared, others more nervous hoping the humidity in the forecast later this week will bring some relief .
“We’re definitely dry,” Flagstaff resident Colin Challifour said late Monday. “The forests are dry. It’s unfortunate. You don’t like to see it.
The strong winds also swept smoke into the sky, creating unhealthy air quality across the region, even reach colorado and other surrounding areas. “While winds will be weaker today than yesterday, gusty southwesterly winds are still expected to continue to drive active fire behavior and increased smoke production,” he said. the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality said in an update Tuesday morning, warning residents to stay indoors, close windows and use air filtration systems if possible.
The climate crisis has set the stage for an increasing intensity of wildfires, producing warmer temperatures that are draining moisture from parched landscapes. Wildfires erupted in early spring across several western US states, where the climate crisis and persistent drought are fueling the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires.
The number of square miles burned so far this year is more than double the national 10-year average, and states like New Mexico have already set records with devastating fires that have destroyed hundreds of homes while causing environmental damage that is expected to affect water supplies.
Nationally, more than 6,200 wildland firefighters are battling nearly three dozen wildfires that have charred more than one million acres (405,000 hectares), according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Even in Alaska, forecasters have warned that many fires in the south of the state have grown exceptionally over the past week, which is unusual. Southwest Alaska normally experiences shorter periods of high fire danger as intermittent rains can bring relief, but since mid-May the region has been hot and windy, drying out vegetation.
Favorable weather on Monday helped slow the progress of a wildfire across the tundra about 3 miles from a Yup’ik village. Moderate temperatures and a shift in the wind that had pushed the blaze towards St Mary’s will allow firefighters to attack the flames directly and increase protections for the community.
In California, evacuations have been ordered for about 300 isolated homes near a wildfire that broke out over the weekend in forest land northeast of Los Angeles, near the Pacific Crest Trail in the mountains. of San Gabriel. It had burned about 990 acres (400 hectares) of pine and dry brush as of Monday and was 27% contained, said fire spokeswoman Dana Dierkes.
A second fire in Tehama County in northern California destroyed 10 buildings, damaged four others and threatened about 160 structures, fire officials said. It was 20% contained on Monday evening.
A spring fire outside Flagstaff, named the Tunnel Fire, destroyed more than two dozen homes before being brought under control earlier this month. Many residents who evacuated then were forced to leave their homes a second time, having barely had time to resettle before the onslaught of a new fire.
With almost no precipitation last month, Arizona marked one of its driest Mays on record, according to the state’s water resources department. High fire danger is expected to continue until the southwest monsoon, which usually brings rain in late summer, provides a reprieve. Until then, residents remain on high alert as authorities work to contain the currently burning fires.
“I know after the tunnel fire and its impacts, it was not welcome,” Graeser said. “However, rest assured that there are many men and women standing guard tonight and will continue to protect this community.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting