Man arrested for starting Hardy fire, evacuation order lifted

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's path. By Catherine Holland A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's path. By Catherine Holland
A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's path. By Catherine Holland A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's path. By Catherine Holland
A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's path. By Catherine Holland A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's path. By Catherine Holland
A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's patch By Catherine Holland A wildfire that broke out just east of downtown Flagstaff has prompted evacuations of nearby businesses and homes that might be in the fire's patch By Catherine Holland

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Police on Sunday announced the arrest of the man they say accidentally started the Hardy fire, which has now grown to about 350 acres.

Investigators says Randall Wayne Nicholson, 54, is facing misdemeanor charges of burning a wildland. They believe the California man was camping in the area where the blaze started and dumped smoldering embers for a camp stove he had been using for cooking.

Nicholson is being held on $2,500 bond.

The good news is that firefighters have the Hardy fire 25 percent contained. The evacuation orders associated with that fire have been lifted.

Even as news of Sunday's arrest was released, a second fire in Flagstaff sparked hundreds of new evacuations.

ORIGINAL STORY: Hardy fire burning east of downtown Flagstaff forces evacuations

Flagstaff spokeswoman Kimberly Ott says the blaze, now dubbed the Hardy fire, broke out at about 1:30 p.m. Saturday behind the Little America Hotel, which is located on Butler Avenue just east of Interstate 40.

The fire quickly worked its way up the hill and is threatening homes in the Herald Ranch Road and Sinagua Heights neighborhoods. Both of those subdivisions -- nearly 200 homes -- have been evacuated, as have the Little America Hotel and the Coconino Humane Association animal shelter. Several other neighborhoods, including Continental Country Club, Amberwood and Foxglen, are on standby, Ott said.

"I've never been in a situation like this," said Paul Brinkman, who lives in one of the communities placed on standby. "It is quite traumatic when they tell you, 'Get ready to move at a moment's notice.'"

While the Little America Hotel had been re-opened by Sunday morning, officials were not ready to allow those under the voluntary evacuation order back into their homes.

Michelle Ryan of the Coconino Humane Association said about 100 animals, including several horses, were safely moved to a temporary shelter at the 2nd Chance Center for Animals, which is located about 7 miles north of the Flagstaff Mall. Ryan said residents who need help evacuating their animals should contact the sheriff's department rather than animal control.

"Animal Control officers are being dispatched through the sheriff's department," she explained.

"Hundreds of homes have been saved to this point," said Flagstaff Mayor Sarah Presslar at a news conference Saturday night. "There are no structural damages. ... We're taking good care of people and creatures here in the city of Flagstaff. We look forward to a strong fight against this fire overnight and appreciate all the community support and all of good work of the fire departments and the U.S. Forest Service."

The fire is mainly burning ponderosa pine trees and had reportedly grown to 400 acres by 6 p.m. Saturday, and was estimated to be at about 600 acres by 9 p.m. Sunday morning, firefighters, with the help of GPS mapping, were able to revise that figure down to less than 300 acres.

Sunday morning, there was much less visible smoke because the fire was burning very low to the ground.

A heavy helicopter and two air tankers are helping ground crews battle the flames. Because fire resources were already in the area working the Eagle Rock fire, crews were able to respond very quickly, Ott said, and more are on the way. A Type 2 Incident Management Team has been called in and will take over Sunday morning.

"We anticipate that this fire will run its course in two to four days before we're at a point of containment," said Mike Iacona of the Flagstaff Fire Department.

"We have some weather conditions that are slated for tomorrow that could create some additional problems," he continued.

The weather is a big concern right now as it is breezy and the humidity is low. It was dry and slightly breezy overnight although the winds were relatively calm. Sunday, sustained winds were expected to be between 15 and 20mph. Gusts could get up to 35mph.

The fire was sending plumes of smoke across Interstate 40 between mileposts 198 and 201 Saturday, causing reduced visibility and traffic delays. Both the eastbound and westbound off ramps at Butler Avenue are closed. In addition, the eastbound off ramp at Country Club is closed. Those ramps have since re-opened.

The Arizona Department of Transportation is urging people driving along this stretch of I-40 to monitor the situation by call 511 within Arizona, or 1-888-411-ROAD outside the state.Travelers can also visit AZ511.gov.

A Red Cross evacuation center has been set up at Mount Elden Middle School, 3223 N. Fourth St., Flagstaff. Several families reportedly spent the night there.

It's believed that the Hardy fire was human caused. Flagstaff police have questioned a 26-year-old man about the fire. While Jesse Perkins has not been arrested for starting the fire, he is considered a person of interest and has been taken into custody for camping within the Flagstaff city limits. 

The investigation into what sparked the fire is ongoing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.