FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — When Jon Stoner opens the blinds to a front window in his home “it’s a piece of heaven,” he says. Acres of ponderosa pine trees stretch into the distance, staggering up a mountain and bringing a sense of calmness to the area northeast of Flagstaff.
With an 10,000-acre wildfire burning nearby, Stoner is unsure how much of that scenery will remain in tact. As he evacuated his home Sunday, he looked out that same window and saw flames shooting up above the trees.
“That’s scary,” he said from a shelter where a community briefing was held a day later. “It moves fast.”
The combination of high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds have challenged firefighters on the ground and in the air. Sustained winds of up to 20 mph with gusts of more than 30 mph grounded heavy air tankers Monday.
Fire crews battling the so-called Schultz fire were focused Monday on protecting homes in the fire’s path by digging trenches, clearing out dry brush and spraying them down. The flames reached the back yards of some homes while coming within a few hundred feet of others, said incident commander Dugger Hughes. No structures have burned.
“The homes are looking very secure right now,” he said.
Residents of several hundred homes remained under evacuation orders, and Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil urged them to be patient while crews worked to suppress the blaze.
“At this time we’re not prepared to put people back in their homes,” he said Monday evening.
The fire is believed to have been started by an abandoned campfire, and authorities were looking for anyone who might have more information. The fire is burning in rough terrain, consuming ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and dry brush.
Rolling clouds of black and gray smoke choked out the sky north of Flagstaff, and bright red and orange flames shot up more than 60 feet in the air. The smoke lingered over roadways, forcing drivers to use headlights in daylight hours.
Hughes said crews would fly over the area early Tuesday morning to get a better idea of the perimeter and of spot fires, some of which have jumped up to a half-mile ahead of the fire.
Flagstaff, a mountain town of about 60,000, is a popular place for tourists and home to Northern Arizona University. A ski resort and snowfall lure visitors during the winter. Moderate summer temperatures provide an escape from more intense desert heat during the summer.
Areas just north of Flagstaff that are under evacuation orders are a mix of upscale, manufactured, ranch-style and second homes that sit at the foot of the mountains and beyond.
Doris Gilmer, 54, lives in a manufactured home that is on 2.5 acres — the first home she ever purchased. She has been diligent in making sure the brush is cleared and wood is stacked away from the home to help protect it from wildfire.
Anxiety struck when she got calls Sunday to evacuate. The sounds of sirens filled the air, helicopters buzzed overheard and she saw flames within a half-mile of the home she shares with her elderly mother, children and grandchildren.
Many residents grabbed what authorities had recommended: medication, important documents and a change of clothing. Pictures and pets also were added into the mix.
At a shelter set up for evacuated residents, Gilmer watched as her grandchildren played with toys and she called out to them not to climb on cafeteria tables.
Gilmer said she has full confidence in the job fire crews are doing. A sign posted along a roadway near the fire read “thank you firefighters.”
“If homes had been lost in this fire, it would not be due to anything the firefighters did or did not do,” Gilmer said.
The fire also abutted U.S. 89, a key route to Grand Canyon National Park, and officials remained concerned that high winds could cause the fire to leap across the roadway.
A federal management team took over direction of the firefighting effort Monday, a move that expanded access to resources. More than 800 firefighters were battling the blaze Monday.
The fire was the second that broke out in two days in the Flagstaff area, both of which spurred evacuations across this forested mountain city. A third fire burning 11 miles northeast of nearby Williams is 60 percent contained after burning 3,420 acres.
Other wildfires in the West also kept firefighters busy.
In Colorado, firefighters east of the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado battled a fire burning amid high winds on rugged terrain. The fire grew to 4,713 acres by Sunday. In New Mexico, fire officials continued to make progress on two wildfires, including a fire that charred more than 13,158 acres in inaccessible terrain in the Jemez Mountains.