A northern Arizona wildfire had chewed through at least 4,800 acres by Thursday morning as an army of Hotshots fought back.
Officials issued a pre-evacuation notice Wednesday in the area north of Slide Rock State Park after the blaze crept to within three miles of a subdivision.
While firefighters have had trouble containing any of the massive blaze since it broke out Tuesday afternoon, some of the 3,200 residents in the small communities of Kachina Village and Forest Highlands still weren’t ready to leave their homes.
“It’s the only place we got. If we lose it, we lose pretty much everything,” Ken Olsen, a former firefighter in Kachina Village, told NBC affiliate KPNX.
“I’m not leaving until they kick me out,” he added.
Officials will oblige, planning for mandatory evacuations if the flames cross to the eastern side of State Route 89A and come within three miles of the communities, where about 300 structures are located. The popular tourist area of Flagstaff is about 13 miles north of the fire.
“All it’s going to take [for the fire to spread] is a strong wind to the east,” Flagstaff fire Capt. Bill Morse told reporters Thursday, and the flames can “jump over our fire control lines.”
“We’re making a lot of difference,” Morse said after firefighters worked to suppress the northeast end of the fire from spreading. “Things are moving forward.”
The smoke-filled skies were enough to prod other homeowners to start packing. They filled trucks with furniture, photo albums and other keepsakes. Officials who went door-to-door tied yellow ribbons on front doors of the homes where occupants evacuated.
“It’s pretty bad, we’re all ready,” said Ken Patrick, a Flagstaff city worker whose home was among those threatened by the fire. “I don’t know if we're going to wait for them to tell us to get out of here. It’s a no-brainer.”
A total of 700 firefighters, including 20 elite Hotshot crews, were expected to join together to beat back the flames, fire officials said Thursday. The Slide Rock fire comes almost a year after a devastating blaze in Yarnell Hill, Ariz., killed all but one member of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.
Slightly calmer winds on Thursday could help firefighters and give fire officials a chance to deploy the DC-10 supertanker and several helicopters to drop water from above.
Sustained winds are forecasted from 10 to 20 miles per hour, with gusts up to 30 mph, said Roy Lucksinger, principal meteorologist at The Weather Channel.
Firefighters could see the best relief over the Memorial Day weekend, when winds are expected to die down further and there will be a slight chance of showers, Lucksinger told NBC News.
So far, steep terrain, an abundance of timber and high winds blowing the embers long distances have made the going exceptionally tough for teams on the ground.
“It’s an hour by hour deal,” said Tony Sciacca, incident commander for the Slide Rock fire.
The Coconino National Forest authority said it was encouraging affected neighborhoods to “begin packing important items they may need for several days. These items include prescriptions, important papers, any special dietary needs and pets.”
Several local roads have been closed, and by Wednesday evening, the fire had split into two fronts and was still at zero containment.
“One’s down low, and one’s up high,” Capt. Morse told The Republic. “And it’s moving fast.”
The steep landscape of Oak Creek Canyon is difficult for crews to negotiate and can cause the fire to spread up to 17 times as fast as on flat terrain, Morse said.
The fire just missed ravaging some resort lodgings in the area, and no actual structures had been damaged as of Thursday morning.
Sophie Lwin, of Peoria, Ariz., 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 the Sedona area 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,” Lwin said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published May 22 2014, 1:03 AM