Winds a Challenge for Crews Battling Arizona Wildfire

June 20: A new wildfire burns at Schultz Pass between the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden in Flagstaff, Ariz. The Timberline neighborhood is being evacuated and two other neighborhoods nearby are on standby. (AP)

June 20: A new wildfire burns at Schultz Pass between the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden in Flagstaff, Ariz. The Timberline neighborhood is being evacuated and two other neighborhoods nearby are on standby. (AP)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.  — When Jon Stoner opens the blinds to a front window in his home "it's a piece of heaven," he says. Acres of ponderosa pine trees stretch into the distance, staggering up a mountain and bringing a sense of calmness to the area northeast of Flagstaff.

With an 8,850-acre wildfire burning nearby, Stoner is unsure how much of that scenery will remain in tact. As he evacuated his home Sunday, he looked out that same window and saw flames shooting up above the trees.

"That's scary," he from a shelter where a community briefing was held a day later. "It moves fast."

The combination of high temperatures, low humidity and high winds have challenged firefighters on the ground and in the air. Monday's forecast called for sustained winds of up to 20 miles per hour with gusts of more than 30 miles per hour, grounding air tankers.

Fire crews battling the so-called Schultz fire were working to protect homes in the fire's path. Residents of several hundred homes remained under evacuation orders as the blaze moved within 500 yards of some of those homes, said fire spokesman Eric Neitzel.

Firefighters worked feverishly overnight to build a containment line between forest land and the communities. They also were digging trenches, clearing out dry brush from around homes and spraying them down in hopes they will be spared, Neitzel said.

Rolling clouds of black and gray smoke choked out the sky north of Flagstaff, and bright red and orange flames shot up more than 60 feet in the air. The smoke lingered over roadways, forcing drivers to use headlights in daylight hours.

Flagstaff, a mountain town of about 60,000, is a popular place for tourists and home to Northern Arizona University. A ski resort and snowfall lure visitors during the winter. Moderate summer temperatures provide an escape from more intense desert heat during the summer.

Areas just north of Flagstaff that are under evacuation orders are a mix of upscale, manufactured, ranch-style and second homes that sit at the foot of the mountains and beyond.

Doris Gilmer, 54, lives in a manufactured home that is on 2.5 acres — the first home she's ever purchased. She's been diligent in making sure the brush is cleared and wood is stacked away from the home to help protect it from wildfire.

Anxiety struck when she got calls Sunday to evacuate. The sounds of sirens filled the air, helicopters buzzed overheard and she saw flames within a half mile of the home she shares with her elderly mother, children and grandchildren.

Many residents grabbed what authorities had recommended: medication, important documents, and a change of clothing. Pictures and pets also were added into the mix.

At a shelter set up for evacuated residents, Gilmer watched as her grandchildren played with toys and she called out to them not to climb on cafeteria tables.

She said she has full confidence in the job fire crews are doing.

"If homes had been lost in this fire, it would not be due to anything the firefighters did or did not do," Gilmer said.

No structures have burned in the blaze, which had zero containment.

The fire also was abutting U.S. 89, a key route to Grand Canyon National Park, and officials remained concerned that high winds could cause the fire to leap across the roadway.

A federal management team took over direction of the firefighting effort Monday, a move that will expand access to resources.

The fire was the second that broke out in two days in the Flagstaff area, both of which spurred evacuations across this forested mountain city. A third fire burning 11 miles northeast of nearby Williams is 60 percent contained after burning 3,420 acres.

Other wildfires in the West also kept firefighters busy.

In Colorado, firefighters east of the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado battled a fire burning amid high winds rugged terrain. The fire grew to 4,713 acres by Sunday. In New Mexico, fire officials continued to make progress on two wildfires, including a fire that charred more than 13,158 acres in inaccessible terrain in the Jemez Mountains.