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Crews try to keep wildfire away from Arizona homes, resort

Updated July 22, 2019 - 7:44 pm

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Crews on Monday were trying to keep a wildfire in a popular Arizona vacation area from homes and a ski resort.

Still, more than two dozen homes were under an evacuation order, and thousands of people were told to prepare by packing supplies for at least three days.

The firefighters should get some help with rain this week, however. Rain fell briefly over the fire outside Flagstaff on Monday evening. Weather forecasters say the chances for much-needed moisture will increase Tuesday but will be accompanied by sometimes erratic winds that could shift the direction of the blaze.

“It’s kind of a mixed blessing,” said fire information officer Steve KIiest.

As crews battled the 1.25-square-mile wildfire, mountain bikers, horseback riders, campers and hikers were being kept off Mount Elden. The city of Flagstaff and Coconino County declared emergencies because of the wildfire, freeing up money to respond to the blaze and allowing the local governments to seek financial assistance from the state.

The fire started in an area where campfires always are banned because of the threat of wildfire, despite most of the national forest around Flagstaff being free of fire restrictions. Officials say the fire is human-caused but haven’t determined the exact cause.

“I just hope no one’s house gets burned down,” Flagstaff resident Randy Thomas said from the parking lot of a grocery store, the fire burning in the background. “That’s the main concern, people’s safety.”

A top-tier federal management team took over the fire Monday, bringing with it more resources to fight the blaze.

At one point, more than a dozen aircraft, including four air tankers, were dropping fire retardant and water on the blaze that started Sunday morning and grew quickly. Ground crews worked to establish containment lines.

Fire officials put the size earlier Monday at 1.6 square miles before aerial mapping.

The terrain was posing more of a challenge for the roughly 200 firefighters, including 10 Hotshot crews, than the weather, officials said.

The fire was burning in Ponderosa pines and mixed conifer between Mount Elden and the San Francisco Peaks, where Coconino National Forest spokesman George Jozens said it could quickly pick up speed.

“We’re throwing a lot of resources at this fire,” Jozens said. “We’re trying to make sure it’s not coming out of that mountain into town.”

Smoke billowing from the mountain and the red glow at night have been foreboding images for the community that saw a massive wildfire on the east side of San Francisco Peaks in 2010, when hundreds of homes were evacuated and a girl died in subsequent flooding — a concern after any wildfire scars the landscape.

The National Weather Service in Flagstaff said the amount of rain that will come this week is uncertain.

“It’s very hard to predict because of the scattered nature of the storms,” meteorologist Nathan Lynum said.

Associated Press writer Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this story.

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