A wind-whipped wildfire in a canyon near Sedona more than quadrupled in size Wednesday, threatening homes and businesses that attract thousands of tourists to Arizona this time of year, while the gusty conditions kept air resources on the ground.
Hundreds of firefighters poured into northern Arizona to battle the fire that sent up choking plumes of smoke and scuttled Memorial Day weekend plans in the popular hiking and camping area.
Authorities warned about 3,200 residents between Sedona and Flagstaff that they should be ready to evacuate if the fire makes another advance Wednesday.
By Wednesday afternoon, many had self-evacuated as the fire grew to an estimated 7 square miles.
Arizona authorities are fearful that the fire could be a prelude for what could become a devastating wildfire season amid a drought that has left tinder-dry conditions across the state.
The fire broke out at the start of the tourist season and closed the main road between Sedona and Flagstaff — two cities that attract visitors in summer months.
The fire is burning near Slide Rock State Park, a popular recreation area because of its natural rock water slides.
Sophie Lwin, of Peoria, said she had relatives from the Los Angeles area coming in for a weekend at the Butterfly Garden Inn, which had to evacuate because of the fire. She said the area is her favorite destination, and she and her husband visit at least five times a year.
“It’s Memorial Day weekend. It’s going to be so hard and so expensive to get anything anywhere else,” she said.
About 500 firefighters and other personnel are already assigned to the fire, including 15 Hotshot crews.
But windy conditions forced firefighters to halt air resources such as retardant. Crews were focused on keeping the fire west of a highway near housing.
There were no reports so far of injuries or structures burned. The cause of the fire wasn’t known, but authorities believe it was human-caused.
The fire forced the evacuations of 100 businesses and homes in a 2-mile stretch north of the state park, and 15 people stayed at a shelter in Flagstaff. About 3,200 people in the communities of Kachina Village and Forest Highlands were told that they need to be ready to evacuate.
“As you can see, we are dealing with some pretty extraordinary circumstances with this fire. I want to reiterate that you basically have received your pre-evacuation notice. This is your time to get ready,” said Robert Rowley, emergency manager for Coconino County.
The fire comes less than a year after a blaze in nearby Prescott killed 19 firefighters who were part of a Hotshot crew.
As the fire moved up the canyon’s steep walls, it sent up large amounts of smoke and ash and created hazy conditions in Flagstaff, about 10 miles away.
The blaze presented several challenges for firefighters, including steep terrain, thick pine forest, gusting winds and the drought conditions, said Bill Morse, a Flagstaff Fire Department captain and a spokesman for firefighting managers. He said the terrain makes it difficult for firefighters to stay in contact with each other on their radios.
But Morse said calming fire conditions in Southern California have freed up extra crews to fight the Arizona blaze.
The evacuees included Nathan and Mickella Westerfield, honeymooners from Phoenix who arrived at a campground in the canyon Tuesday afternoon. They were headed into Sedona for dinner when they passed the fire, which was burning in a valley visible from the highway.
As other passers-by stopped to take pictures of the fire, a firefighter told the couple they couldn’t return to their campground to retrieve their newly purchased camping gear and other belongings, Nathan Westerfield said.
“He told us, `no, we’re evacuating,”‘ he said. “We literally have the clothes on our backs.”
Red Cross spokeswoman Trudy Thompson Rice said most of the people who stayed Tuesday night at the shelter at a Flagstaff school were campers. The Westerfields were among those who spent the night.
A separate wildfire burned 200 acres and closed Interstate 17 near Cordes Junction in both directions for more than four hours late Tuesday. The interstate, which is the main route between the Phoenix area and northern Arizona, reopened Tuesday evening.