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Fires burn thousands of acres in Arizona amid fire-prone conditions in the Southwest

Two Arizona wildfires collectively consumed nearly 7,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon as conditions favorable for fires were forecast across much of the Southwest.

The Tunnel Fire was burning about 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff. The fire was measured at more than 6,000 acres Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Forest Service officials said. No containment had been achieved by early evening.

Multiple communities near the fire were under mandatory evacuations, with the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office telling residents of the Timberline and Moon Crater areas to leave immediately.

Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said the fire moved so quickly that it was difficult to get deputies into neighborhoods to help evacuate residents.

“The fire was moving so fast many of those officers were in harm’s way themselves,” he said Tuesday evening.

Smoke rises from the Tunnel Fire in the Timberline neighborhood of Arizona.@CoconinoNF via Twitter

Driscoll said his department fielded calls about a man trapped in his burning home but were unable to get to him and about children possibly left at home in an evacuation zone. Subsequent checks on most of the reports of children at home turned up empty residences, he said.

Word on the fate of anyone missing will have to wait until it’s safe for authorities to go into burn areas, Driscoll said.

At least two dozen structures were estimated lost, and more than 250 structures are threatened, he said.

County spokesperson Trey Williams said evacuations covered an estimated 766 households, with a little more than 2,000 people in the area.

Williams said residents were versed in the state’s “Ready, Set, Go!” program, which informs residents to pack up and be prepared to flee in emergencies. Some communities not under mandatory evacuations were at “set” status Tuesday evening.

The Red Cross and the Coconino Humane Association have set up centers for human and pet evacuees, respectively.

More than 200 firefighters were working the blaze, which created a plume seen for miles, officials said. The National Weather Service said the plume created fire clouds, also known as pyro-cumulus clouds.

A 10-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 89 was closed, with the northbound lanes shut down at mile 423 and southbound lanes cut off at milepost 445, according to the Arizona Transportation Department.

The Tunnel Fire was first reported 4:22 p.m. Sunday and exploded from its footprint of 11 acres late Tuesday morning, the U.S. Forest Service said. The fire thrived amid a red flag warning from the National Weather Service for the lower elevation of northern Arizona. Such a warning means an increased risk of fire danger due to a combination of warm temperatures, low humidity and stronger winds.

“The fire is located in an area with dry grass and brush, with scattered Ponderosa pine,” the Forest Service said in an update Tuesday afternoon. “Windy conditions can cause this fire to rapidly spread in a northeast direction and cause spotting ahead of the fire.”

The Forest Service said it canceled plans for a prescribed 2,400-acre burn in the area scheduled for Monday because of the conditions.

Planned attacks by air were canceled Tuesday because the winds were too dangerous for the aircraft to maneuver safely, Flagstaff district ranger Matthew McGrath said.

The forecast Tuesday included maximum gusts of 50 mph and temperatures well into the 80s for some of the northern areas of the state.

On Tuesday, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency, allowing the use of emergency funds and potentially giving the county access to further disaster assistance if signed by Gov. Doug Ducey.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also approved a state request for assistance, authorizing the use of federal funds to help fight the Tunnel Fire.

The separate Crooks Fire started about 10 a.m. Monday near Prescott, the U.S. Forest Service said. By Tuesday afternoon it was estimated to have covered 750 acres, with no containment reported.

Seven communities were under mandatory evacuations Tuesday evening, and one additional area was told to prepare for possible evacuation under the “set” stage of the state’s emergency preparedness program, according to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, which posted maps of evacuation zones.

Multiple roads near the fire were closed.

Forest Service officials said 181 personnel were assigned to the Crooks Fire. The service closed multiple recreation sites at the national park as a precaution.

“The biggest challenge for today is a red flag warning,” Commander Cory Carlson of the fire’s federally managed incident center said in a video update Tuesday.

By early evening, Forest Service officials said the winds had taken a toll and helped the fire thrive, but an acreage update wasn’t available.

It wasn’t clear whether structures were threatened in the Crooks Fire.

The blazes joined a list of active fires in the West, including a small wildfire in Boulder County, Colorado, on Tuesday night that the local sheriff’s department described as “slow moving.”

The 90-acre Duck Pond Fire in Colorado had been reduced to “smoldering and hot spots” by Monday afternoon, according to a statement from Eagle County.

In fire-gripped New Mexico, the Hermits Peak Fire was 80 percent contained, essentially stopping its progress after it expanded to more than 7,500, the U.S. Forest Service said earlier Tuesday.

However, concerns about the same conditions’ affecting parts of Arizona were in place in New Mexico as authorities hoped winds wouldn’t restart the blaze’s progress.

The fire started April 6 when unexpected gusts swept a prescribed burn in Santa Fe National Forest beyond its boundaries, federal officials said.

A fire that has been burning since Saturday in southwest Alaska had consumed 4,048 acres by Tuesday afternoon and was “growing,” according to the state Forestry Division. There were no reports of structure loss or damage, and no injuries have been announced.

The location of the Alaska fire is so remote that it was discovered by plane, and forestry officials continued to keep an eye on by air.

Federal forecasters said in a forecast discussion Tuesday that much of the Southwest and some of the Southern Plains, including parts of Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado and possibly sections of Wyoming and Nebraska, could get gusty winds and “summer-like warmth” midweek that add up to critical risk of fire.

Red flag conditions in parts of Arizona were paired Tuesday with warnings to residents not to start cooking or heating fires.

The causes of both Arizona fires remained under investigation.

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