Home smokey home: Residents happy to return while crews keep fighting N. Arizona wildfire

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Her house smelled like smoke, but Mary Oravits was elated.

"I'm home! I'm finally home!" the Flagstaff resident said after being allowed back into her neighborhood Wednesday. "It's so exciting."

Oravits was one of about 1,000 people who evacuated their homes Sunday after a forest fire started tearing though stands of ponderosa pine north of the city and rising up the slopes of the nearby San Francisco Peaks.

"The day that it happened, it looked like it was coming over here quickly," Oravits said. "I was really distraught. At first, you think you're going to lose everything, which is hard to absorb."

After three days in hotels, trailers or friends' homes, homeowners and their families in the northern Arizona city of about 60,000 people began to trickle into the evacuated neighborhoods Wednesday morning. Crews had enough confidence in their fire lines to let the local sheriff lift the evacuation order, but he warned residents to be prepared to leave again if necessary.

"We're very glad," said resident Lula Whitehair. "When we saw that fire coming, we thought the worst."

Jennifer Stanley and her husband returned home after spending the previous three nights in their camper.

After evacuating, they sat on nearby U.S. Highway 89 to watch the fire, which authorities said was started by an abandoned campfire. Stanley estimated flames came within a quarter-mile from her home in the Timberline neighborhood.

"You could see big like, 20-, 30-foot flames," she said. "We're like, 'OK, is that our house?'"

Though some of his neighbors left, Mike Diamond chose to stay home, knowing that once he left, officials wouldn't let him return. Diamond almost changed his mind the next day when thick smoke blanketed the area.

"Monday afternoon, early afternoon, it got real bad," he said. "I was getting ready to bail."

Diamond said gas was shut off to his home, but firefighters were stationed nearby, and he felt secure. Things cleared up enough by Tuesday that he knew it was safe.

"I kinda thought they'd open things up yesterday, but they didn't," he said.

Nearly 1,000 firefighters were battling the 22-square-mile Schultz fire, and their work was far from over. At least 10 miles of fire line still needed to be completed, and the blaze was just 20 percent contained. Crews worked Wednesday to improve the line on the southern flank of the fire to keep it from surging back toward the city about five miles away.

To secure the line, crews used several helicopters to drop material to ignite and burn out any forest fuels, said fire spokesman Eric Neitzel. Meanwhile, firefighters aided by air tankers dropping fire retardant were trying to stop its growth to the north.

The fire was at 14,500 acres by Wednesday night — up 500 acres from Tuesday — but officials said the increased acreage was mainly from burnout operations.

The Forest Service issued an emergency closure order Wednesday for a large area near the fire while officials continued the effort to find who left the campfire unattended.

Authorities said a campfire also was to blame for a smaller fire in southeast Flagstaff that broke out Saturday. Campfires will be prohibited in three Arizona forests starting Wednesday.

The southeast Flagstaff fire was 80 percent contained Tuesday afternoon, and a third fire 11 miles northeast of Williams was expected to be fully contained Wednesday.

No major injuries have been reported and no structures have burned.