Arizona wildfires prompt restrictions, pre-evacuation notices

FLAGSTAFF, AZ - Authorities in southeastern Arizona put residents on notice Tuesday that they might have to evacuate because of a wildfire burning in the Huachuca Mountains. Meanwhile, officials in northern Arizona were preparing to enact fire restrictions about a month earlier than normal.

Low humidity, high winds and an ongoing drought are testing firefighters battling the 366-acre Brown Fire in the steep, rugged terrain of the Huachuca Mountains. Crews were helicoptered in to construct fire lines on a ridge to keep the blaze from escaping a bowl in a canyon. Air tankers were dropping fire retardant on the wildfire, while helicopters dropped water.

"They're optimistic they can hold it where it is," said Heidi Schewel, a spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest. "A wind event could change things."

A top-level federal management team was scheduled to take over Tuesday night. The blaze wasn't threatening any structures. But officials planned a public meeting Tuesday night in Hereford to address any concerns from residents, many of whom recall the 30,000-acre Monument Fire that burned portions of the Huachuca Mountains in 2011 and destroyed dozens of homes.

"There's a lot of uncertainty now with a new fire, and we want to make ourselves available to hear people's concerns," Schewel said.

Law enforcement officers were handing out pre-evacuation fliers to residents and encouraging them to pack a bag. The exact cause of the Brown Fire is under investigation, but it has been determined to be caused by  human activity.

On the opposite end of the state, firefighters were wrapping up containment on a 145-acre wildfire that sent huge plumes of smoke into the air when it started Friday near Flagstaff. At the time, dozens of people were gathered in Flagstaff to be trained on how to keep watch over the forests for wildfire activity.

An April 10 report from the Southwest Coordination Center showed that nearly 270 wildfires across Arizona have charred 1,000 acres this year. Most of those are small and caused by human activity.

Fire officials hope to prevent some human-caused wildfires by limiting the areas people can smoke and have open fires. The lowest level of restrictions for Prescott, Flagstaff, and the Coconino, Tonto, Prescott and parts of the Kaibab national forests go into effect Friday morning.

"We could have a long fire season ahead of us, and we need members of the public to work with us to prevent human-caused starts," Coconino National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart said.

Paul Summerfelt, wildland fire management officer for Flagstaff Fire Department, said charcoal grills at city parks will be covered, and "no smoking" signs will go up along trails in Flagstaff. Various agencies have been giving presentations at homeless shelters on fire danger, sending out messages via social media and making sure equipment is ready and personnel are trained, he said. A seasonal fire crew starts work next week, about a month early.

"The conditions are such that we can expect to have an active fire season," he said. "Will we have the ignitions? That's the key."

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