Flagstaff, Arizona. Lisa Wells looked out the window of her home office and saw a puff of smoke. Before long, the smoke darkened, the wind intensified, and entire trees were consumed by the flames.
In what felt like seconds, her family on Tuesday shifted from a readiness status to a go now. She managed to gather important medicines and get her horses, alpacas and dogs to safety.
The house they bought 15 years ago outside Flagstaff has not survived. Strong winds caught embers that spread through the neighborhoods, destroying some houses and leaving others unharmed.
“It was a miracle that people left because we had so little time,” Wells said Wednesday, in a parking lot that has become a rallying point for evacuated communities.
Residents have not been able to fully assess the damage, in part because the forecast has even stronger winds that experts say could lead to more explosive growth of the fire. It was 0% contained on Wednesday night.
CBS Phoenix affiliate KPHO-TV reports that flames from the so-called Tunnel Fire can be fanned Thursday and Friday by gusts of up to 50 mph over most of northern Arizona.
About 25 structures were lost in the fire. Coconino County officials on Wednesday pointed residents to a system where they could get help with food, temporary housing and other necessities. About 765 homes were evacuated.
And the risk is not limited to Arizona. The 30-square-mile fire outside of Flagstaff is one of six large wildfires that have raged across Arizona and New Mexico in recent days.
State and federal officials were scrambling to get more teams on the front lines before the wind forecast worsened on Friday – gusts of up to 110 km/h 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 the fire season and said “it’s going to be a long one this year.”
Hundreds of people were evacuated because of wildfires in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Popular lakes and national monuments were closed – some because fire moved directly over them.
US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and the far north of Arizona, and communities of the Navajo Nation, remained closed.
Resources to fight forest fires are scarce. Four of the 16 high-level national fire management teams are dedicated to the southwest — something that fire information officer Dick Fleishman said was rare in April.
In Flagstaff, erratic winds grounded air assets.
Flagstaff residents questioned how a small fire reported northeast of the college town on Sunday afternoon had grown to more than 30 square miles by Wednesday afternoon. Matt McGrath, a park ranger for the Coconino National Forest district, said firefighters surrounded the blaze on Sunday and saw no smoke or active flames when they checked it again on Monday.
On Tuesday, the wind was firmly in control. The flames erupted and leapt over the containment line, leaving firefighters and McGrath wondering if they could have done something different, he said.
“I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so,” McGrath said. “And I know it’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, but it is in a rural area where no structures were destroyed and a small number of evacuations were ordered.
In Colorado, new wildfires sparked evacuations in Monte Vista, a town of about 4,150 in the southern part of the state and near Longmont. An undetermined number of structures were burned, but no one was injured, officials said.
“Sometimes we struggled to stay in front of this fire and stay out of the way because the winds and other things were so strong,” said Monte Vista Police Chief George Dingfelder.
The number of acres burned in the US so far this year is about 30% above the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall have combined with spring winds to raise the odds of more catastrophic fires.
Rocky Opliger, the incident commander in a wildfire that burned about 3 square miles and forced evacuations south of Prescott, Arizona, said conditions are some of the worst he has seen in nearly five decades of fighting wildfires.
“It’s too early to have this kind of fiery behavior,” he said. “Now we are on the whims of time.”