Wildfire in Oak Creek Canyon reaches 4,500 acres

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by Felicia Fonseca and Paul Davenport, Associated Press

3TV team coverage

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 5:07 AM

Updated Thursday, May 22 at 7:13 PM

OAK CREEK CANYON, Ariz. (AP) -- A wind-whipped wildfire in a canyon near Flagstaff dramatically increased in size Wednesday as it sent up choking plumes of smoke, threatened homes and scuttled Memorial Day weekend plans in the popular hiking and camping area.

Hundreds of firefighters poured into northern Arizona to battle the fire between Sedona and Flagstaff, and by Wednesday afternoon, the fire grew to an estimated 7 square miles, or about 4,500 acres. The erratic and gusty winds grounded air tankers that were brought in to fight the fire.

Authorities also warned about 3,200 residents in communities near Flagstaff that they should be ready to evacuate if the fire makes another advance.

Officials 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 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. The winds helped the fire race 2,000 feet up the canyon and to a plateau area.

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 threatened homes.

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 latest fire moved up the canyon's steep walls, it sent up large amounts of smoke and ash and created hazy conditions in Flagstaff, about 15 miles away.

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 at the shelter at a Flagstaff school Tuesday night 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 is the main route between the Phoenix area and northern Arizona.

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Davenport and Associated Press writer Astrid Galvan contributed to this report from Phoenix.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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OAK CREEK CANYON, Ariz. (AP) -- Hundreds of firefighters are pouring into northern Arizona to battle a wind-whipped wildfire burning in scenic Oak Creek Canyon near  Slide Rock State Park.

Coconino National Forest officials say 200 firefighters are already assigned to the fire, including five Hotshot crews.
 
An additional 15 Hotshot crews are on order, as well as 10 additional firefighting crews plus dozens of fire engines.

The Slide Fire started Tuesday afternoon and authorities believe it was human-caused. It has forced the evacuations of 100 threatened businesses and homes in a two-mile stretch north of the state park.

Fifteen people stayed at a shelter in Flagstaff.

However, there are no reports so far of injuries or structures burned.

"Fire activity is slowing toward the north and now concentrating on moving up the steep canyon walls," according to an update fire managers released at 7:15 a.m. "Resources are stationed above and below the fire. Smoke is heavy through Oak Creek Canyon and creating very hazy conditions in Flagstaff. Smoke will likely continue to drift north and be noticeable along I-17 as motorists approach northern Arizona."

State Route Highway 89A is closed through the steep-walled canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff.

Slide Rock State Park is a popular recreation area due its natural rock water slides.

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More crews headed to northern Arizona wildfire

OAK CREEK CANYON, Ariz. (AP) -- Hundreds of firefighters were pouring into northern Arizona on Wednesday to battle a wind-whipped wildfire burning in scenic Oak Creek Canyon near Slide Rock State Park.

About 200 firefighters and other personnel are already assigned to the 450-acre Slide Fire, including five Hotshot crews, Coconino National Forest officials said Wednesday.

An additional 15 Hotshot crews are on order, as well as 10 other firefighting crews plus dozens of fire engines, officials said. A top-level fire management team was to take over command Wednesday afternoon.

Calming wildfire conditions in Southern California have freed up crews for the Arizona fire, said Bill Morse, a Flagstaff Fire Department captain and a spokesman for firefighting managers.

The Slide Fire has forced the evacuations of 100 threatened businesses and homes in a 2-mile stretch north of the state park, and 15 people stayed at a shelter in Flagstaff.

There are no reports so far of injuries or structures burned. Slide Rock State Park is a popular recreation area because of its natural rock water slides.

The fire was moving up the canyon's steep walls, sending up smoke and creating hazy conditions in Flagstaff.

A resort near the fire used water sprayers to keep the flames at bay and its buildings escaped damage, Morse said.

A separate wildfire in the state burned 200 acres and closed Interstate 17 near Cordes Junction in both directions for more than four hours late Tuesday. I-17, which is the main traffic route between the Phoenix area and northern Arizona, reopened Tuesday evening.

The two blazes ignited amid drought conditions that have left parts of the state tinder-dry and have Arizona officials worried about the prospect of a devastating 2014 wildfire season.

The Slide Fire started Tuesday afternoon and authorities believe it was human-caused.

State Route Highway 89A is closed through the canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff.

Red Cross spokeswoman Trudy Thompson Rice said most of the 15 people who stayed Tuesday night at the shelter at a Flagstaff school were campers.

"We had a lot more than that -- maybe 30 -- come in to register and let us know where they were," she said Wednesday.

The evacuees at the Flagstaff shelter included Nathan and Mickella Westerfield, young 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 shrubs and trees in a small valley visible from the highway.

Other passers-by had stopped to take pictures of the fire, Nathan Westerfield said.

"It didn't even seem like it was a big deal," but a firefighter told the couple they couldn't return to their campground to retrieve their newly purchased camping gear and other belongings, Westerfield said.

"He told us, `no, we're evacuating,'" he said. "We literally have the clothes on our backs."

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. 

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OAK CREEK CANYON, Ariz. (AP) -- A wildfire near Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon has forced the evacuations of some businesses and homes in a two-mile stretch north of the area.

U.S. Forest Service officials say the so-called Slide Fire has burned an estimated 450 acres on the western slope of the canyon across the creek from Highway 89A.

As of Wednesday morning, the fire was zero percent contained.

The fire was reported about 4 p.m. Tuesday. It is believed to be human-caused.

Highway 89A now is closed at the Oak Creek Overlook.

Evacuations have been ordered at West Fork, Pine Flat, Halfway, Cave Springs and other campgrounds and day use areas in the upper canyon.

Some inns, resorts and other businesses also have been ordered to evacuate by Coconino County authorities. The Butterfly Inn, Garland's, Junipine Resort and other businesses are affected by the evacuation order.

Two Hotshot crews, four engines, two helicopters and Sedona firefighters are battling the wildfire. 100 firefighters are on the scene. More crews and air support are on the way.

"Our biggest assets right now are some of our helicopters that are helping knock down the fire on the steep slopes," said Brady Smith with the Coconino National Forest. "You can't get firefighters up on those areas."

The weather is having a big impact on how this fire spreads.

"We do have a Red Flag Warning for most of Northern Arizona today that the National Weather Service issued this morning," said Smith. "The winds typically die down in the evening but that's a canyon area and is going to push things northward...hopefully those winds will die down as the evening progresses and then that will help us out quite a bit."

The winds did start to calm down as evening fell, but not as much as fire crews had hoped. Those winds picked up again as the sun came up, pushing the fire closer to the canyon.

No injuries have been reported.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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