FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Firefighters fanned out across blackened landscape in Arizona’s high country, digging into the ground to put out smoldering tree stumps and roots as helicopters buzzed overhead with buckets of water to drop on a massive blaze.
The work has been tedious and steady — all with the recognition that already strong winds will become stronger Friday and a shift over the weekend could turn the blaze up hillsides or toward homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff.
The 32-square-mile (83 kilometer) fire is one of many major wildfires to have broken out in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado during the past week. Forecasters warn that wildfires can be created by warm weather, spring winds, and little or no precipitation.
Those elements are “pretty much on steroids in the atmosphere for tomorrow,” said Scott Overpeck with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “And by that we mean they are really cranked up. Everything is overlapping together at the same time.”
According to Jerolyn Byrne (a spokeswoman for team members fighting the fire), the Flagstaff-area fire was likely to continue growing Friday.
Residents and officials have not been able to see the full extent of the damage. Crews were busy on Thursday setting up a spot-fire and trying to prevent flames from rising to the mountainside. This would result in a bigger fire that could cause long-term flooding and erosion.
The helicopters were still able to drop water on the flames for the first-time, lifting spirits.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Flagstaff’s Coconino County. This declaration allows for the state to provide funding for shelter, evacuations, and other expenses. However, the money can’t be used to reimburse home and business owners for losses.
About 30 structures have been destroyed, but it’s still unclear how many were homes, the county sheriff’s office said Thursday.