Dozens of wildfires burned in hot, dry conditions throughout the western United States, including a lightning strike heading toward the largest city in northern Arizona.
The mountain town of Flagstaff was engulfed in smoke on Monday. The surrounding national forest announced a complete closure that would begin later this week, the first time it has happened since 2006.
The intensity of the heat that has hampered fire efforts was more widely expected to moderate in the coming days. But the National Meteorological Service noted it could cause uncertainty for fire crews.
“The humidity and the possibility of scattered rainfall is good,” meteorologist Andrew Taylor said. “Lightning is not good.”
In California, firefighters were still facing the daunting task of trying to contain a large forest fire in the rugged coastal mountains south of Big Sur that forced the evacuation of a Buddhist monastery and a nearby camp.
In New Mexico, lightning has been scalded in the southern part of the state, where much of the Gila Desert remains closed and firefighters are closely watching the national monument to the homes on the cliffs of Gila.
So far there have been more burned lands in Arizona, with new wildfires beginning to rapidly change resources. Although humans are to blame for an overwhelming majority of forest fires, lightning started an 80-square-kilometer (31-square-kilometer) fire west of Sedona heading toward Flagstaff, called “the fire Rafael ”.
A top-level management team had been ordered to oversee the flames burning in the grass, juniper, chaparral and heavy pine.
Some campers have already been evacuated and rural residents have been told they are preparing to evacuate with prior notice, Coconino County Sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton said.
Due to the Rafael fire, all areas south of 1 to 40, west of I-17, including Heights, Kachina Village, Forest Highlands, Pine Dell and Woody Mountain Road, are now in state SET. Start preparing a possible GO command to EVACUATE.
IT IS NOT AN EVAC NOTIFICATION.
– Coconino County (@CoconinoCounty) June 21, 2021
If the fire continues to push northeast, hundreds of people could also be affected in Flagstaff (a university town two hours north of Phoenix), Paxton said.
Firefighters were plotting a plan to starve Rafael’s fuel while traveling through rugged terrain, canyons and wilderness areas, said Dolores Garcia, a fire intelligence officer. As of Monday, it was running parallel to Interstate 40 along Coconino and Yavapai County lines.
Coconino National Forest, a popular area for camping, hiking, boating and fishing, is closed on Wednesday due to concern that it will not have enough resources to respond to future forest fires.
The forest has only been partially closed in recent years due to the danger of fire.
“We have limited resources and they are taking advantage of us right now,” forestry spokesman Brady Smith said.
Arizona is at the highest level of forest fire preparedness. On Monday there were nearly 70% arson near Superior, about 97 km (60 miles) west of Phoenix. The 730-square-mile (282-square-mile) fire was caused by humans.
Residents near the small communities of Pine and Strawberry are still being evacuated due to another fire that has jumped between the treetops, with flames leaping forward carried by the wind. Some local roads were also closed.
Fire extinguishers must still contain any perimeter of the fire. The fire caused by lightning was estimated at 132 square kilometers on Monday and is being managed by a top-level team.
In Utah, several wildfires burned in dry bone conditions. The largest near the small town of Enterprise in southern Utah forced evacuation over the weekend. But homeowners were allowed to return, as containment reached 50%.