FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Firefighters brace for fierce southwesterly winds to return after a brief reprieve allowed them to tackle overhead blazes for the first time in days as half a dozen large blazes forest continues to grow in Arizona and New Mexico.
More than 500 firefighters were watching the lines of fire in the two states and more help was on the way Friday when the largest kind of management team is expected to take command of resources during one of the largest fires and the most dangerous near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Spirits were lifted on Thursday when helicopters were able to start dropping water on the fire for the first time. It has burned more than 32 square miles (83 square kilometers), forced the evacuation of 765 homes and destroyed at least two dozen structures since it erupted on Sunday.
Air attacks also resumed in northern New Mexico, where at least one tanker was able to join the effort northeast of Santa Fe, which will likely be impossible on Friday.
Sheriff’s deputies on Thursday called for additional evacuations of scattered homes and closed some roads during a large fire in a rural area southeast of Taos, New Mexico, where no structural damage has occurred. been reported.
But firefighters and meteorologists across the region are warning the worst may be yet to come.
“There is high confidence that an extreme and catastrophic widespread fire weather will occur on Friday,” Santa Fe National Forest officials said Thursday evening.
“We urge the public to remain vigilant, continue to monitor expected changes in the evacuation status, and be ready to leave quickly,” officials said.
Sustained winds of 30 to 50 mph (48 to 80 km/h) are forecast there Friday morning, with gusts of 60 to 80 mph (97 to 129 km/h) in the afternoon from the Gila Mountains to the Rio Grande valley to the neighboring highlands.
The combination of high winds, warmer temperatures and extremely dry conditions will create an atmosphere “pretty much on steroids,” said Scott Overpeck of the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.
“It’s not typical,” he said, anticipating what he said could be potentially explosive fire growth on Friday. “It’s definitely one of those days where we have to be on our toes and we have to be ready.”
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency in Coconino County in Flagstaff on Thursday. The declaration paves the way for state funding of evacuations, shelters, repairs and other expenses. However, the money cannot be used to reimburse home and business owners for losses.
About 30 structures were destroyed, but it’s still unclear how many were homes, the county sheriff’s office said.
Firefighters fanned out across a blackened landscape in Arizona’s high country on Thursday, digging into the ground to douse smoldering tree stumps and roots as helicopters buzzed overhead with buckets of water to fall on a huge fire.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and later rains in the fall, scientists said. The problems are exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and poor forest management, as well as a 20-plus-year mega-drought that studies have linked to human-induced climate change.
In a fire that consumed about 3 square miles (8 square kilometers) of wood and brush and forced evacuations near Prescott, Arizona, Forest Service officials reported that the fire continued to burn “in thick, dry, dead, broken down combustibles in very rough terrain.”
“Erratic winds and fire behavior make conditions unsafe for firefighters,” who “are instructed not to put themselves in situations where the risk is high and the likelihood of success is low,” officials said. of the Prescott National Forest in an update Thursday.
Popular lakes and national monuments closed in Arizona – including Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument outside Flagstaff because the wildfire moved directly over it, blackening trees and burning tools and vehicles in a maintenance yard, said monument spokesman Richard Ullmann.
The Coconino National Forest has closed where the wildfire is burning, but has not enacted restrictions or broader fire closures. A sign at a door warns of the possibility of debris, falling trees and branches, and flash flooding.
Fire restrictions go into effect Friday at New Mexico National Park Service sites, including Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument.
In Colorado, firefighters contained two small wildfires in the southern and northern parts of the state on Thursday while battling high winds.
The Boulder County Fire was started by the battery of a downed drone that researchers were using to study severe weather, the sheriff’s office said Thursday. Searchers used a fire extinguisher, but the fire spread quickly in strong winds, authorities said. The other fire damaged or destroyed about 15 structures, including homes, in Monte Vista, a community of about 4,150 people surrounded by agricultural fields, police said.
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