Fast-moving fire near Flagstaff, Arizona, with flames up to 100 feet high, prompts state of emergency

A fast-moving fire northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, grew to nearly 20,000 acres on Wednesday after doubling in size overnight, prompting local officials to declare a state of emergency.

The fire, which was reported Sunday shortly before 4:30 p.m., was still at 0% containment as of Wednesday, according to forest officials. The cause is unknown and under investigation. 

"I cannot stress enough how rapidly this fire is moving in a northeasterly direction," said Fire Management Officer True Brown on Tuesday night. He urged people to leave the area. The Coconino County Board of Supervisors declared a State of Emergency on Tuesday.

Officials estimated that 25 structures had burned so far.

Brian Klimowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said there is a red flag warning for Thursday because wind could cause fire growth. He said a strong front is moving in on Friday.

"It’s going to be dry. So folks, we have entered our fire season. It’s going to be a long one this year," Klimowski said.

Aviation resources were ordered and on scene earlier in the day but had to remain grounded due to the "unprecedent winds" in the area, Brown said. 

The fire as seen from a lookout point on April 19, 2022.

Flame lengths reached up to 100 feet high and wind gusts reached 50 mph, officials said. 

As of late Tuesday, 766 households were evacuated in Coconino County, said county supervisor Patrice Horstman. Over 2,000 people live in the affected area. 

About 250 structures remained threatened in the area popular with hikers and off-road vehicle users and where astronauts have trained amid volcanic cinder pits.

"The rapid movement of the progression of this fire made the evacuation much more difficult and complicated than we’ve had in the past," Coconino Sheriff Jim Driscoll said Tuesday evening. "We had some difficulties getting some people to leave and we’re still trying to confirm those that may have chosen to stay in their neighborhoods and not honor the mandatory evacuation."

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Driscoll said the sheriff’s office got a call saying a man was trapped in his house, but that firefighters couldn’t get to him. They do not know if he survived.

The fire has grown substantially due to high winds and has spread toward the northeast at a high rate, according to a release by the Coconino National Forest. 

Officials anticipate the rest of the week to be challenging.

“I don't see any significant decreases in wind, I don't see any big bump-ups in humidity and, at this point, we're not really expecting any precipitation either,” said meteorologist Robert Rickey.

Weather conditions were more favorable Wednesday with light breezes before a return to stronger winds Thursday “approaching a critical level,” said Mark Stubblefield, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Flagstaff.

Matt McGrath, district ranger at the Coconino National Forest, said a fire investigation team has been ordered and will be at the scene by Wednesday to identify the cause of the fire.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that nearly 2,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel were assigned to more than a dozen large wildfires in the Southwestern, Southern and Rocky Mountain areas. Scientists say climate change has made the U.S. West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. 

Contributing: Cady Stanton and Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY; The Associated Press