Map: Mount Elden Middle School
Map: Fires burning around Flagstaff
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Residents forced out of their Flagstaff neighborhoods by the massive Schultz fire were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday morning.
The enormous wind-whipped wildfire, one of several burning in the Flagstaff-area, is up to 14,800 acres since Sunday afternoon when it forced hundreds of people to evacuate, but there is some good news. On Thursday, firefighters had 40 percent containment on the fire, which was sparked by an abandoned camp fire in the area of Schultz Tank, Little Elden Trail, and Forest Road 420.
Authorities are looking for the person or people who left that camp fire behind. If you were camping in the Schultz Pass over the weekend and know what might have happened, officials would like to hear from you. Please call 928-527-3600.
The Forest Service is offering a reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
The Coconino National Forest has issued an emergency fire closure area that includes the Kachina Peaks Wilderness area and all trails and roads around the Schultz fire, including areas around Mount Elden.
A ban on campfires begins Wednesday in the Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott National Forests because of the extremely dry conditions.
Some 800 firefighters are already working the Schultz fire, and more are on the way from Idaho. There's still some 9 miles of unsecured fire line.
While the high winds have been causing some serious problems over the past couple of days, things were expected to be calmer weather-wise Tuesday and Wednesday.
Despite the progress and the positive weather outlooks, authorities are not yet ready to let the hundreds of evacuees back into their homes.
Coconino County authorities said on Sunday that residents living in the Timberline Estates, Wupatki and Fernwood neighborhoods, which is about 1,000 homes, were asked to leave for their own safety.
"It's something that unless you've lived through it, I don't think you can imagine," said evacuee Patti Vorhees as she packed up her pets and left. "You literally take your prescriptions, your animals and the clothes on your back."
In addition, the 2nd Chance Center for Animals remains evacuated. That is the site to which the Coconino Humane Association temporarily evacuated its animals Saturday afternoon.
According to Coconino National Forest spokeswoman Karen Malis-Clark, the Schultz fire was spotted early Sunday afternoon on the north end of Schultz Pass, between the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden. The fire was pumping out a huge smoke column that could be seen for miles. It grew rapidly up to 5,000 acres by that evening.
"We're all asking ourselves on this one ..., 'How did it completely happen so quickly?'" Vorhees said.
About 300 firefighters responded on Sunday. Air tankers were grounded because of the high winds Sunday, but four helicopters were trying to extinguish the fire. A Type 1 Fire Incident Management arrived Sunday evening and took over the fire Monday morning.
The sheriff's department confirmed that some hikers in the area who had gotten lost in the smoke have been accounted for.
The Coconino Sheriff's Office is also cautioning residents who are asked to evacuate to make sure to confirm that the order is coming from an official with the fire department, sheriff's department or U.S. Forest Service. Authorities are also using the reverse-911 system to contact residents. Deputies said there have been some cases of people posing as authorities and getting residents to evacuate and then burglarizing the empty homes.
Weather is playing a big role in the Schultz fire. Winds that had been gusty all day Sunday and Monday slowed a bit overnight. Things are expected to be somewhat calmer Wednesday.
The Red Cross shelter that opened Saturday in response to the Hardy Fire is being used to assist evacuees of the Schultz Fire, said Red Cross public information office Megan Morris.
The Schultz fire was causing visibility issues on Highway 89. ADOT and DPS crews on scene responded with safety in mind, closing the road northbound at Silver Saddle Road and southbound at milepost 433. Due to reduced visibility and traffic issues related to the Schultz fire and the resulting evacuations, traffic was moving slowly through the area and motorists are urged to use extra caution due to reduced visibility.
Larry Tunforss with the U.S. Forest Service said 89 has since re-opened. Southbound traffic is restricted to one lane getting through. That, however, could change at any moment, so ADOT cautions drivers to be prepared to use an alternative route if the roadway closes again.
The Arizona Department of Transportation is urging people driving along this stretch of 89 to monitor the situation by call 511 within Arizona, or 1-888-411-ROAD outside the state. Travelers can also visit AZ511.gov.
No homes have been lost and no serious injuries have been reported, but two firefighters have been treated for smoke inhalation and dehydration.
The other fire that sparked Sunday, the Ranch fire, is burning near Route 66 and Flagstaff Ranch Road. That fire is not threatening any structures and no evacuations have been ordered in connection with it. Unlike the Schultz fire, crews were reportedly able to get the upper hand on the Ranch fire fairly quickly.
A meeting was held Monday evening at Coconino High School where the evacuees were briefed on the plan to move forward as the fire continues.