Arizona Wildfire Evacuations: Arson Suspected As More Than 1,000 Homes Evacuated

Arizona Wildfire Evacuations: Arson Suspected As More Than 1,000 Homes Evacuated

27 June 2010

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USA — The second wildfire to hit Flagstaff in two days quickly spread Sunday to more than 4 square miles, driving residents from hundreds of homes just north of this forested city, creating a huge plume of smoke and prompting a search for missing hikers.

Also Sunday, evacuation orders for the first fire, in southeastern Flagstaff, were lifted after fire officials reported the blaze 30 percent contained. A man was arrested on suspicion of starting that fire by dumping coals from a campfire on the ground, city spokeswoman Kimberly Ott said.

Officials announced the news about the hikers and revised the number of evacuations for both wildfires at a Sunday evening press conference. They didn’t specify how many hikers were missing but said “two active searches” were under way.

Authorities also announced that a third wildfire was reported near Interstate 40 in western Flagstaff. The blaze was caused by a vehicle fire that spread into a wooded area, but there was no word on its size, officials said.

Ott said residents of hundreds of homes on 1,044 parcels just north of Flagstaff were being advised to leave because of the Shultz fire, which was reported Sunday morning and quickly charred 3,000 acres.

Four helicopters and 300 firefighters were battling the blaze, and more crews were on the way, Ott said. Eight air tankers were ordered but had been grounded because of wind.

“There’s a pretty impressive towering column of smoke,” said Coconino National Forest spokeswoman Karen Malis-Clark.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents at a Flagstaff middle school.

Authorities knew of no buildings that had been burned. U.S. Highway 89 northeast of the northern Arizona city of about 60,000 was closed because of smoke from the Shultz fire. The cause of the fire was unknown.
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Meanwhile, residents of the 116 homes evacuated because of the Hardy fire in southeastern Flagstaff were being allowed to return after crews made some progress the blaze, which started Saturday and had burned 300 acres.

A California man was arrested Sunday on suspicion of starting the Hardy fire by leaving behind hot coals at a campsite in a wooded area about two miles from downtown Flagstaff.

“As far as we understand, this was not a deliberate act. It was a careless act,” Ott said.

Randall Wayne Nicholson, 54, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of burning of a wildland, Ott said. Nicholson, whose hometown was not immediately available, was being held on a $2,500 bond at the Coconino County jail. It was unknown if he had an attorney.

Fires also had crews busy Sunday near Williams, Ariz., and in Colorado and New Mexico.

High winds and rugged terrain kept ground crews and aircraft from getting close to a wildfire in southern Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. The fire grew to 4,500 acres.

In New Mexico, crews were making progress on the South Fork fire, which had charred more than 11,150 acres in steep, inaccessible terrain in the Jemez Mountains.

Fire danger is considered high to extreme in Arizona, which has seen two wildfires burn more than 3,000 acres each in the last month.

“The Southwest had a wet winter and then the spring turned dry,” said Rick Ochoa of the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. That combination has “increased the fire potential quite a bit in the Southwest,” he said.

Relief isn’t expected until next month, when summer monsoons generally start bringing rain to the region.

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