Firefighters may have hoped to keep the Slate Fire north of Flagstaff contained to just 3,000 acres, but high winds Wednesday afternoon had different plans.
Coconino National Forest spokesperson Randi Shaffer told the Arizona Daily Sun that by Wednesday evening, a flyover of the fire revealed the blaze had grown to an estimated 5,000 acres.
Just like in previous days, that growth comes in part as many acres of prescribed burns around the fire designed to consume fuels and limit its movement joined with the main body of the fire, enlarging its total footprint.
But Shaffer said higher winds also continued to push the fire, which is still at 0% containment, north and northeast.
Those higher winds, which are expected to continue through Thursday, could also make monitoring the fire’s growth somewhat more difficult, Shaffer said. The winds may hinder or event prevent aircraft from being able to conduct flyovers of the blaze -- which is generally the best way to measure the size of a fire.
“We did have that perimeter marked to 3,000 acres and our goal was to keep it contained. But you know, it's dry, it’s windy, we're in a drought, and fire is fire. Things don't always go according to plan. But luckily, we have backup plans and contingency plans. So we are still working to contain the fire. There's not really a cause for concern yet,” Shaffer said.
Highway 180 remains closed with no estimated time for reopening. The highway has been closed since Monday afternoon when the Coconino National Forest began prescribed burns along the road to counter the fire.
Shaffer said the road will remain closed in part because firefighters are still burning areas near the road. But she said the larger factor might be visibility and the number of emergency vehicles and personnel on the road.
“There's heavy smoke impacts in the area, so reduced visibility. And also we do have a lot of crews and equipment using that road,” Shaffer said.
The road from mileposts 235 to 248 will remain closed for the foreseeable future.
At the moment, there is not a new acreage perimeter that forest managers are hoping to keep the fire within. But Shaffer said throughout Thursday, fire managers planned to continue to conduct burnout operations west of the highway in order to secure the northwestern flank of the blaze.
East of the highway, hand crews and dozers continue direct attack work, hoping to direct the fire northeast and away from Cedar Ranch.
This should help herd the fire toward fuels and terrain that will be more effective in containing that section of the fire, rather than allowing the fire to move south toward the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.
Shaffer said it helps that the winds are naturally pushing the fire in the direction they want.
It appears that Cedar Ranch, which firefighters had been working hard to protect, has found itself under relative safety after prescribed burns set Wednesday blocked the fire’s approach to the ranch.
According to social media posts, the efforts saved a historic barn and several other structures in the area.
Firefighters are now using the ranch as a safety area for fire crews and engines operating east of the highway.
Shaffer said one of the four hotshot crews that had been working the fire timed out and was pulled off the line leaving about 130 personnel still working the blaze. Shaffer said forest managers are working to bring in another crew in to replace the crew that was pulled.
The National Weather Service in Bellemont is calling for a slight break in the wind heading into the weekend, though gusts could still exceed 20 mph each day.
High temperatures will increase to the upper 80s over the weekend and are forecast to be 92 degrees Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Three times in the 2010s, Flagstaff never recorded a high in the 90s; the all-time high is 97 degrees, set in 1973.
The forecast has a 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms slated for Wednesday.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.