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A towering ‘wall of fire’ whipped by high winds is forcing thousands to evacuate an Arizona tourist town, as Red Flag warnings for high-risk weather conditions cover much of the Southwest.

The Tunnel Fire has grown to 6,000 acres since it began under unknown circumstances on Sunday about 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff, officials said. The blaze remained at zero containment as of Tuesday evening.

Flames as high as 100 feet raced through an area of scattered homes, dry grass and Ponderosa pine trees as wind gusts of up to 50 mph pushed the blaze over a major highway. 

On Tuesday morning the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office began emergency evacuation operations after the blaze jumped the fireline, with more than 200 homes directly threatened.

Officials said that an estimated 2,068 people lived in the area under evacuation orders, and that 766 households had been successfully evacuated, including more than 1,000 animals.

At zero containment on Tuesday, the Tunnel Fire has grown to 6,000 acres since it began in unknown circumstances on Sunday about 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff, officials said

At zero containment on Tuesday, the Tunnel Fire has grown to 6,000 acres since it began in unknown circumstances on Sunday about 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff, officials said

At zero containment on Tuesday, the Tunnel Fire has grown to 6,000 acres since it began in unknown circumstances on Sunday about 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff, officials said

On Tuesday morning the Coconino County Sheriff's Office began emergency evacuation operations after the blaze jumped the fireline, with more than 200 homes directly threatened

On Tuesday morning the Coconino County Sheriff's Office began emergency evacuation operations after the blaze jumped the fireline, with more than 200 homes directly threatened

On Tuesday morning the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office began emergency evacuation operations after the blaze jumped the fireline, with more than 200 homes directly threatened

The fire was moving northeast away from the more heavily populated areas of Flagstaff, home to Northern Arizona University, and toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

The fire was moving northeast away from the more heavily populated areas of Flagstaff, home to Northern Arizona University, and toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

The fire was moving northeast away from the more heavily populated areas of Flagstaff, home to Northern Arizona University, and toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said that he was not certain that all residents in the evacuation area were able to make it out alive.

‘We did get calls that people, one person was trapped in his house, his house was on fire and he couldn’t get out,’ Driscoll told reporters. 

‘We couldn’t get back up to that area because it had burned, the fire was already in it. So we don’t know if he made it out or not.’

The county declared an emergency after the wildfire ballooned from 100 acres Tuesday morning to over 9 square miles by evening, and ash rained from the sky. 

The fire was moving northeast away from the more heavily populated areas of Flagstaff, home to Northern Arizona University, and toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, said Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith.

‘It’s good in that it´s not headed toward a very populated area, and it´s headed toward less fuel,’ Smith said. ‘But depending on the intensity of the fire, fire can still move across cinders.’

The county declared an emergency after the wildfire ballooned from 100 acres Tuesday morning to over 9 square miles by evening, and ash rained from the sky

The county declared an emergency after the wildfire ballooned from 100 acres Tuesday morning to over 9 square miles by evening, and ash rained from the sky

The county declared an emergency after the wildfire ballooned from 100 acres Tuesday morning to over 9 square miles by evening, and ash rained from the sky

Officials said that an estimated 2,068 people lived in the area under evacuation orders, and that 766 households had been successfully evacuated, including more than 1,000 animals

Officials said that an estimated 2,068 people lived in the area under evacuation orders, and that 766 households had been successfully evacuated, including more than 1,000 animals

Officials said that an estimated 2,068 people lived in the area under evacuation orders, and that 766 households had been successfully evacuated, including more than 1,000 animals 

More than 200 firefighters and personnel are currently assigned to battle the fire, and an investigation team is expected to arrive on Wednesday to probe what caused the blaze. 

Firefighting resources currently devoted to the Tunnel Fire include five handcrews, 15 engines, and three dozers. 

Air tankers were ordered on Tuesday to aid in the firefight but were diverted due to high winds that surpassed safe operating thresholds. 

The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office estimates about 25 structures have been lost to the fire. More than 250 structures are threatened, officials said.  

A shelter has been set up at Sinagua Middle School for those effected by the evacuations. 

The Coconino Humane Society is taking in large and small animals that have been evacuated from the danger zone. 

Patrice Horstman, the chair of the Coconino County board of supervisors, said at a press conference that a local state of emergency had been declared.

‘It’s a very difficult time,’ said Horstman. ‘I really appreciate the efforts of the fire crews, our sheriff’s depart and all of our first responders.’

‘The Tunnel Fire has been fueled by high winds and dry conditions, and the county has deployed all available resources,’ she added.

Smoke from a wind-whipped wildfire rises above neighborhoods on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Tuesday

Smoke from a wind-whipped wildfire rises above neighborhoods on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Tuesday

Smoke from a wind-whipped wildfire rises above neighborhoods on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Tuesday

Officials with the National Weather Service warned early Wednesday that much of the Southwest and High Plains was under Red Flag warnings for fire weather.   

‘Critical Risks for fire weather have been issued from Las Vegas on east across northern Arizona and much of New Mexico,’ the NWS said in a flash bulletin. 

‘The fire weather hazards are due to gusty winds, dry fuels, and low humidity.’

Various organizations worked to set up shelters for evacuees and animals, including goats and horses.

The scene was all too familiar for residents who recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned in the same area.

‘This time was different, right there in your backyard,’ said Kathy Vollmer, a resident.

She said she and her husband grabbed their three dogs but left a couple of cats behind as they faced what she described as a ‘wall of fire.’

‘We just hope they are going to be OK,’ she said.

Earlier in the day, the wildfire shut down U.S. 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and communities on the Navajo Nation. The high winds grounded aircraft that could drop water and fire retardant on the blaze.

Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, shut off power to about 625 customers to keep firefighters safe, a spokeswoman said.

About 200 firefighters were battling the flames, but more are expected as a top-level national management team takes over later this week.

The fire started Sunday afternoon 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff. Investigators don´t know yet what caused it and have yet to corral any part of the blaze.

Homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff were being evacuated Tuesday as high winds whipped a wildfire, shut down a major highway and grounded firefighting aircraft

Homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff were being evacuated Tuesday as high winds whipped a wildfire, shut down a major highway and grounded firefighting aircraft

Homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff were being evacuated Tuesday as high winds whipped a wildfire, shut down a major highway and grounded firefighting aircraft

Ali Taranto rushed to Flagstaff from Winslow, where she works at a hospital, on Tuesday to check on a property she owns that was threatened by the wildfire. She also was getting messages to check on a neighbor who she found didn´t have access to oxygen while the power was out and didn´t have the strength to manually open her garage door to evacuate.

Taranto said the neighbor was ‘disoriented and gasping for air’ when she reached her. Firefighters in the area helped get the garage door open and the neighbor to the hospital, she said. Taranto was looking for a shelter for the neighbor´s two dogs.

By the time Taranto left the area, the highway into Flagstaff was shut down and she had to drive an extra two hours back home. At least two other neighbors didn´t evacuate, she said.

‘To see flames several yards away from your property line and to hear the propane tanks bursting in the background, it was very surreal,’ Taranto said. ‘Ash falling down. It was crazy.’

The wind is expected to be a challenge the rest of the week, along with warmer-than-average weather and low humidity, the National Weather Service said.

‘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.

Red flag warnings blanketed much of Arizona and New Mexico on Tuesday, indicating conditions are ripe for wildfires. Residents in northern New Mexico´s Mora and San Miguel counties were warned to be ready to evacuate as wildfires burned there amid dry, warm and windy conditions.

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.

Elsewhere in Arizona, firefighters battled a wildfire in a sparsely populated area of the Prescott National Forest about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott.

Cory Carlson, the incident commander with the Prescott National Forest, said late Tuesday afternoon the high winds have been the biggest challenge, sending embers into the air that sparked new spot fires near State Route 261, along with the demand for crews at other fires.

‘We do have a lack of resources,’ he said. ‘There´s a lot of fires in the region.’

Some areas were evacuated, and a shelter was set up at Yavapai College. Carlson appealed to residents to abide by evacuation orders.

The cause of the 600-acre (2.4 square-kilometer) wildfire was under investigation.

In southern Arizona, a principal highway route between Bisbee and Sierra Vista reopened Tuesday after being closed for about eight hours due to a brush fire in the hills overlooking Bisbee.

Source: dailymail

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