Wildfires burn across US West threatening Flagstaff, Arizona

Officials are warning rural residents near an Arizona wildfire to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Dozens of wildfires were burning in hot, dry conditions across the western United States, including a blaze touched off by lightning that was moving towards northern Arizona’s largest city.

The mountainous city of Flagstaff was shrouded in smoke Monday. The national forest surrounding it announced a full closure set to begin later this week — the first time that has happened since 2006.

Intense heat that has hampered firefighting efforts more broadly was expected to moderate in the coming days. But, the National Weather Service noted it could bring uncertainty for fire crews.

“The humidity and the possibility of some scattered rainfall is a good thing,” said meteorologist Andrew Taylor. “The lightning is not a good thing.”

In California, firefighters still faced the difficult task of trying to contain a large forest fire in rugged coastal mountains south of Big Sur that forced the evacuation of a Buddhist monastery and nearby campground.

In Globe, Arizona, US, in early June, firefighters in Arizona were fighting to gain a foothold into an enormous wildfire, one of two that forced thousands of evacuations in rural towns and closed almost every major highway out of the area [File: Joseph Pacheco via AP]

In New Mexico, lightning-sparked blazes have been scorching the southern part of the state where a large portion of the Gila Wilderness remains closed, and fire officials are closely watching the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

More land has burned across Arizona so far to date with new wildfire starts quickly shifting resources. While humans are to blame for an overwhelming majority of wildfires, lightning started a 80sq-km (31sq-mile) blaze west of Sedona that was moving towards Flagstaff, called “the Rafael Fire”.

A top-tier management team had been ordered to oversee the blaze that is burning in grass, juniper, chaparral and ponderosa pine.

Some campers already evacuated, and residents of rural areas have been told to prepare to evacuate on a moment’s notice, said Coconino County sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton.

If the fire continues its northeastern push, hundreds of people in Flagstaff — a college city about two hours north of Phoenix — also could be affected, Paxton said.

Fire officials were mapping out a plan to starve the Rafael Fire of fuel as it moves through rugged terrain, canyons and wilderness, said fire information officer Dolores Garcia. As of Monday, it was moving parallel to Interstate 40 along the Coconino and Yavapai county lines.

The 7,283sq-km (2,812sq-mile) Coconino National Forest, a popular area for camping, hiking, boating and fishing, is shutting down Wednesday because of concerns it will not have enough resources to respond to any future wildfires.

The forest has only partially closed in recent years because of wildfire danger.

“We have limited resources, and we’re tapped right now,” said forest spokesman Brady Smith.

Arizona is at the highest level of preparedness for wildfires. A large wildfire burning near Superior, about 97km (60 miles) west of Phoenix, was nearly 70 percent contained Monday. The 730sq-km (282sq-mile) blaze was human-caused.

Residents near the small communities of Pine and Strawberry remain evacuated because of another wildfire that has hopped among treetops, with flames jumping ahead carried by wind. Some local roads also were closed.

Firefighting crews have yet to contain any of the wildfire’s perimeter. The lightning-sparked blaze was estimated at 132sq km (51sq miles) Monday and is being managed by a top-tier team.

In Utah, several wildfires were burning in bone-dry conditions. The largest near the small town of Enterprise in southern Utah forced evacuations during the weekend. But homeowners were allowed to return as containment reached 50 percent.

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