Forecasters: Strong winds could lead to explosive growth of fires

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Lisa Wells looked out her home office window and saw a plume of smoke. Soon the smoke blackened, the wind intensified, and entire trees were consumed by the flames.

In what seemed like seconds, his family went from being ready to go to going now on Tuesday. She managed to gather important medicine and get their horses, alpacas and dogs to safety.

The house they bought 15 years ago on the outskirts of Flagstaff has not survived. Strong winds picked up embers that swept through neighborhoods, destroying some homes and leaving others unscathed.

“It was a miracle people got out because we had so little time,” Wells said Wednesday, standing in a parking lot that has become a gathering place for evacuated communities.

Residents have not been able to fully assess the damage, in part because forecasts call for even stronger winds which experts say could cause the fires to grow more explosively.

And the risk is not limited to Arizona. The 30 square mile (77 square kilometer) blaze outside Flagstaff is one of half a dozen major wildfires that have swept through Arizona and New Mexico in recent days.

State and federal officials have been scrambling to get more crews to the front lines before wind forecasts worsen on Friday – with gusts of up to 70 mph (112 kph ) in parts of northern New Mexico.

At a community meeting in Flagstaff on Wednesday night, Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service declared the start of fire season and said “it’s going to be a long one this year.”

Hundreds of people have been evacuated as wildfires burn in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Popular lakes and national monuments have been closed, some because fire moved directly on them.

US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and Navajo Nation communities, remained closed.

Resources for fighting forest fires are limited. Four of the 16 top-tier National Fire Management Teams are dedicated to the South West – which Fire Information Officer Dick Fleishman says is rare for April.

At Flagstaff, erratic winds wiped out air assets.

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) by Wednesday afternoon. 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, leaving firefighters and McGrath wondering if they could have done something different, he said.

“I can’t tell you for sure, but I don’t think so,” McGrath said. “And I know that’s not a satisfying answer when people are going through what they’re going through right now.”

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Another large fire southeast of Taos, New Mexico also burned more than 30 square miles (77 square kilometers), but it was in a rural area where no structures were destroyed and a small number evacuations ordered.

In Colorado, new wildfires prompted evacuations in Monte Vista, a town of about 4,150 in the southern part of the state, and near Longmont. An unknown number of structures burned but no one was injured, authorities said.

“We had a hard time staying in front of that fire and staying out of the way at times because the winds and stuff were so strong,” Monte Vista Police Chief George Dingfelder said.

The number of acres burned in the United States so far this year is about 30% higher than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall combined with spring winds to increase the chances of more catastrophic fires.

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.”

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.

Wells described his house as unique, a quirky house that had horizontal posts held together by tongue and groove boards. Her husband, Bill, had remodeled it little by little.

The wildfire reduced it to ashes and also destroyed a barn, although it spared a guesthouse where his daughter’s family lived on the same property.

The only thing they were able to salvage from the ashes was a gray porcelain dove that Bill Wells gave to his wife. It was part of a collection of collectibles.

“It was the only thing we found so far, but it means a lot, and we will keep it,” said Lisa Wells, holding the item.

She also thought of the decades of photographs she left behind and the little grand piano built in 1890 that her grandmother, who was an opera singer, gave her. Those too are gone.

“It’s just stuff, you realize it’s just stuff and what’s important is your family,” she said, holding her blue heel, Bandit, on a leash. “We think day to day, we know everything will be fine.”

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Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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