Western wildfires force evacuations in Arizona and California

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The northern Arizona city of Flagstaff is synonymous with mountains — lush with ponderosa pines, meadows and hiking trails that offer respite from the desert heat.

Now parts of them are still burning this year, fueled by winds that wiped out overhead resources on Monday. Fire crews were anticipating more moderate winds on Tuesday and throughout the week, which could help them better control the blaze which largely spared homes but headed into a wilderness area and towards a domed volcano of lava.

Townspeople looked towards the mountains as smoke billowed into the air and winds howled, some scared, others nervous – most hoping the humidity in the weekend forecast brings some relief.

“We’re definitely dry,” Flagstaff resident Colin Challifour said Monday night. “The forests are dry. It’s unfortunate. You don’t like to see it.

About 2,500 homes were evacuated due to two wildfires that burned on the outskirts of Flagstaff. A home and secondary structure burned down, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office said. Hundreds of other people in California and New Mexico have also been forced to flee homes threatened by wildfires.

In northern Arizona, Coconino County has declared an emergency due to the wildfire.

Fire Cmdr. Aaron Graeser said the Flagstaff area fire is one of the nation’s top priorities for firefighting resources. It was estimated at 8 square miles (20 square kilometers) on Monday evening, but fire managers were unable to do aerial mapping.

Two other smaller wildfires northeast of the blaze coalesced, forcing evacuations in a more distant area on Monday.

Wildfires erupted in early spring in several western US states, where climate change and persistent drought are fueling the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires. A spring fire outside Flagstaff destroyed more than two dozen homes. Most of the residents who were later evacuated have been out of their homes again because of this latest wildfire.

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 (4,408 square kilometers), 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 tundra wildfire just over 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from an Alaska Native village. Moderate temperatures and a shift in the wind that had pushed the fire towards St. Mary’s will allow firefighters to attack the flames directly and increase protections for the Yup’ik community.

The lightning-ignited fire is estimated to be around 193 square miles (500 square kilometers). It burns dry grass and shrubs in the mostly treeless tundra of Southwest Alaska.

In California, evacuations have been ordered for about 300 remote homes near a wildfire that broke out over the weekend in forest land northeast of Los Angeles near the Pacific Crest Trail in the San Mountains. Gabriel. It had burned about 1.5 square miles (3.9 square kilometers) of pine trees 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.

Further south in San Diego County, five people were rescued after a small wildfire broke out near the US-Mexico border on Monday, authorities said.

In northern California, a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of State Route 70 was closed indefinitely on Monday after mud, rocks and dead trees inundated lanes during flash flooding along a forest fire scar.

The causes of the latest fires in California were under investigation.

Authorities don’t yet know what started the northern Arizona fire. A man who was camping near where the blaze was reported on Sunday was cited a day earlier for lighting toilet paper on fire in violation of a year-round fire ban in the area, but he is not accused of starting the forest fire.

Parts of U.S. Route 89, the main route to reach the Grand Canyon’s East Rim entrance and through the Navajo Nation, remained closed, as did the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.


Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles; Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska; Jim Anderson in Denver; and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

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