July 23, 2019 / 10:59 PM / 3 months ago

Rains aid in battling ponderosa pine fire near Flagstaff, Arizona

PHOENIX, Ariz. (Reuters) - Flames raged mostly unchecked for a third day through America’s largest ponderosa pine forest, threatening thousands of residents in and around Flagstaff, Arizona, but firefighters made the most of afternoon rains on Tuesday to finally take the offensive.

The Museum Fire, named for the Museum of Northern Arizona not far from the blaze’s point of origin, has scorched at least 1,400 acres (567 hectares) of the Coconino National Forest since erupting on Sunday, fire officials said. No injuries or property damage have been reported.

Roaring through timber stands parched by a prolonged dry spell, the blaze was centered just 2 miles (3.22 km) from downtown Flagstaff, a city of about 70,000 people on the edge of the high Colorado Plateau southeast of the Grand Canyon.

Rugged terrain has made battling the flames difficult, said Joel Barnett, a spokesman for a multi-agency fire command led by the U.S. Forest Service.

But by Tuesday evening, fire crews taking advantage of showers moving into the area had managed to carve buffer lines around 10% of the flames’ perimeter, up from zero containment earlier in the day.

Dozens of homes on the northern edge of the city were ordered evacuated on Monday to make way for crews conducting controlled “burnouts” to remove potential fuel from the path of the blaze, Barnett said. Those operations had proven successful, officials said Tuesday.

Still, some 5,000-plus residents were under pre-evacuation notices in parts of northern Flagstaff and adjacent communities, warned to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, Coconino County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jon Paxton said.

Governor Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency to ensure that adequate resources were available for first-responders.

While rainfall was welcomed by firefighters, the National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning for Flagstaff as authorities handed out sandbags to residents whose homes might be vulnerable to hillside runoff. The potential for high winds and lightning was also a concern.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. Paxton said no lightning strikes were documented in the area before the blaze ignited, raising suspicions that an unattended campfire was to blame.

More than 500 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, one of three large fires reported this week in the sprawling Coconino National Forest, encompassing some of the largest contiguous swaths of ponderosa pine in North America. The National Interagency Fire Center tallied a total of 11 major wildfires across Arizona.

The bulk of the nation’s current wildfire activity is unfolding in Alaska, where the agency reports 74 blazes have blackened nearly 2 million acres, mostly in remote areas.

Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler

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