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Fire crews scramble as Rafael Fire near Flagstaff joins list of blazes impacting beleaguered Arizona
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Fire crews scramble as Rafael Fire near Flagstaff joins list of blazes impacting beleaguered Arizona

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Residents across southwestern Flagstaff and parts of Coconino County were sitting with bated breath much of Monday after a rapidly growing wildfire threatened to force evacuations.

The Rafael Fire grew rapidly on Sunday from just 400 acres on the Prescott National Forest to more than 20,000 acres across the Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino Forests. And that growth appeared to continue throughout Monday as winds pushed the fire northeast.

Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Dolores Garcia said by late afternoon on Monday, the fire appeared to be about 16 miles from Flagstaff as it burned near the bottom of Sycamore Canyon. She said the fire was burning just below Sycamore Tank and right at the edge of Sycamore Creek.

Garcia said the rapid growth of the fire was not surprising and referred to the current conditions in Arizona as a recipe for disaster.

“I would call it the perfect storm of an alignment of drought conditions, extremely drought-stressed vegetation and the wind,” Garcia said. “Many of these areas have thick vegetation, so it creates a lot of heat and it allows [the fire] to kind of keep that momentum going. And then you add the wind on top of it.”

Around noon on Monday, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office announced that residents of the southwest portions of Flagstaff should prepare for a possible evacuation.

Sheriff’s spokesperson Jon Paxton said the decision to elevate to “set” status was made in conjunction with the Coconino County National Forest. The “set” status is not an official evacuation order, but it means residents should be prepared for a possible evacuation.

Typically, Paxton explained, that decision is made once a “trigger point” is reached. This might include passing a certain forest service road, predicted wind speed, heat or other aspects that could indicate a particularly fast-moving fire.

Officials announced Monday afternoon that all areas south of the 1-40 and west of the I-17, including University Heights, Kachina Village, Forest Highlands, Pine Del and Woody Mountain Road should prepare to evacuate as the lightning-sparked Rafael Fire swelled to more than 20,000 acres.

This area includes more than 750 apartments within Flagstaff, second homes in the Forest Highlands area and larger properties in Kachina Village in addition to single-family homes scattered throughout.

“We’re talking more than 1,000 residents,” Paxton said.

Deputies began going door-to-door to urge residents to prepare for a possible evacuation. In some cases, residents might not receive another notice as emergency services cannot guarantee they will be able to notify everyone if conditions deteriorate rapidly. Anyone especially concerned about traffic or in high-congestion areas should consider leaving prior to an official evacuation notice.

Officials were still working to identify possible shelters for residents in addition to large and small animals Monday afternoon. 

“This has really escalated over the last hour or so,” Paxton added.

Becky Hipsher, her husband and son were among many preparing for the possibility of a “go” order.

The three of them live in Pine Del in a home they have occupied for more than 20 years.

Hipsher said they were feeling nervous but had completed most of their packing. She said they had packed the necessities and things that could not be replaced.

“Pictures, medications, art work, things with sentimental value,” Hipsher said. “That’s about it other than a few clothes in an overnight bag.”

She said this is the second time they have found themselves at risk of needing to evacuate because of a wildfire, but it hasn't been any easier.

Fire crews stretched

With so many other fires raging across the state, the rapid growth of the Rafael Fire appeared to leave fire managers scrambling to respond with limited resources.

Garcia said fire managers were triaging resources, determining which fires were most important to tackle first and which ones could wait until later.

"Resources are definitely stretched thin. We have so many incidents going on right now that we are scrambling to get skeleton crews together to take care of certain things. Now some things you can do that with and other things you can't," Prescott National Forest spokesperson Noel Fletcher said.

It has even been a struggle to get an adequate number of public information officers to take phone calls and keep the public informed, Fletcher said. 

Fletcher herself is an example of that. Her normal role is as a forest wildlife biologist for the Prescott National Forest, but now she is lending her hand at providing information. 

Given the shifting resources, it is unclear how many personnel and what kind of teams are now working to contain the Rafael Fire.

Garcia said fire managers have been requesting additional crews to help counter the Rafael Fire for the last day or so. And she said those teams were beginning to arrive and get to work throughout Monday, at times after coming off other large fires that had occupied them across the state.

“As some of our area fires, especially in southern Arizona [like] the Telegraph Fire, have begun to demobilize and to downsize, many of those resources that still have time left and availability have been reassigned up to these fires in this area,” Garcia said.

At the moment, a type three incident team has been managing the response to the fire.

They are expecting a type one team to take over management on Wednesday.

“We have limited resources, and we’re tapped right now,” said Coconino National Forest spokesperson Brady Smith.

Backbone Fire

Meanwhile, a type 1 incident team took control of managing the Backbone Fire this weekend.

On Friday, the communities of Strawberry and Pine were both ordered to evacuate, and the fire continued to grow over the weekend. Based on a flyover Sunday night, the fire is now estimated to be about 32,700 acres in size and it is 0% contained.

There are 334 personnel assigned with more on the way, spokesperson Jayson Coil said during a briefing on Monday morning.

State Route 260 is closed between Camp Verde and State Route 87. Likewise, 87 is closed north of Payson to Clint’s Week.

Since its start, the fire has largely been moving north but also spreading somewhat to the east and west.

Coil said while there is a threat to Pine and Strawberry, there is also an emerging concern for Camp Verde as the fire continues to grow northward.

On Sunday, firefighters used heavy equipment to reinforce fire lines south and west of Strawberry and Pine in order to help protect those communities and fire lines have now been built around Strawberry. Fire managers are also looking at conducting prescribed burns in the area in order to deprive the fire of fuel nearby. On Monday, firefighters and heavy equipment planned to reinforce control features to the south and west of Strawberry and Pine.

Coil said they are improving forest roads in the area southeast of Strawberry, on top of Deadman’s Mesa, as they hope to prevent the fire from crossing and establishing itself in Hardscrabble Canyon.

There have been some spot fires across that road, but Coil said they are working to prevent those spot fires from spreading and further growing the fire to the east.

Difficult terrain in the area has limited the way that firefighters on the ground have been able to safely work on the fire and fire managers are relying on aircraft to do much of the work.

“This is a huge challenge in this terrain because the easy parts aren’t the important parts,” Coil said.

They also want to prevent the fire from crossing into the west side of the Verde River, Coil said. If the fire crosses that river, it will greatly complicate their efforts to counter the fire and they will thus be monitoring the area very closely, he said.

Snake Fire

The Coconino National Forest said air and ground resources were also responding to another new wildfire, the Snake Fire, seven miles west of Clints Well. The blaze, which was 10-20 acres and started by an unknown cause, moved several communities in the area to "set" status, including the Happy Jack Lodge, Clear Creek Pines 1 and 2, Mahan Park, Poor Farm and Fisher Properties.

The fire was first reported Monday afternoon by the Apache Maid Lookout, according to a press release.

Weather predictions

The National Weather Service in Bellemont is calling for more haze and smoke in the Flagstaff area Tuesday, with a high of 86 degrees and west winds of 8 to 14 mph, with gusts up to 23 mph.

There is a 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms on Wednesday and a 20 percent chance on Thursday, with the high dropping to the low-80s. Temperatures are expected to rise back to the upper 80s through the weekend, with relatively calm winds.

Across the West

Dozens of wildfires were burning in hot, dry conditions across the West.

Intense heat that has hampered firefighting efforts more broadly was expected to moderate in the coming days. But, the National Weather Service noted it could bring uncertainty for fire crews.

“The humidity and the possibility of some scattered rainfall is a good thing," said meteorologist Andrew Taylor. "The lightning is not a good thing.”

More land has burned across Arizona so far to date with new wildfire starts quickly shifting resources. The state is at the highest level of preparedness for wildfires. A large wildfire burning near Superior, about 60 miles west of Phoenix, was nearly 70% contained Monday. The 282-square-mile blaze was human-caused.

In California, firefighters still faced the difficult task of trying to contain a large forest fire in rugged coastal mountains south of Big Sur that forced the evacuation of a Buddhist monastery and nearby campground.

In New Mexico, lightning-sparked blazes have been scorching the southern part of the state where a large portion of the Gila Wilderness remains closed, and fire officials are closely watching the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Firefighters in Oregon were focused on two wildfires, one burning near the state's highest peak and another in the southern part of the state that was threatening 125 structures.

In Utah, several wildfires were burning in bone-dry conditions. The largest near the small town of Enterprise in southern Utah forced evacuations over the weekend. But homeowners were allowed to return as containment reached 50%.

The heat wave gripping most of the west has set more records.Places like California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah are under excessive heat warnings and advisories. The high temperatures are creating dangerous conditions. One is a higher risk of wildfires.A fast-moving fire in Reno, Nevada forced people out of their homes yesterday.The evacuation orders were eventually lifted but crews were battling dry conditions in 90-degree temperatures.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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