The 32-square-mile blaze outside Flagstaff is one of a half-dozen major wildfires that have raced across Arizona and New Mexico the last few days.
Red flag warnings of critical fire conditions were issued Thursday for much of northern Arizona, including the Flagstaff area, and large portions of New Mexico as state and federal officials scrambled to get more crews on the front lines.
With expected wind conditions, "it will prove challenging to put in those containment lines to stop fire growth," said Jerolyn Byrne, a spokesperson for the team working the Flagstaff-area fire. "We'll see some growth on the fire."
At a community meeting in Flagstaff on Wednesday evening, Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service declared the start of the fire season and said "it's going to be a long one this year."
Hundreds of people have been evacuated because of wildfires burning in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Popular lakes and national monuments have been closed — some because fire has moved directly over them.
U.S. 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and communities on the Navajo Nation, remained closed.
Resources to fight the wildfires are tight. Four of the 16 top-level national fire management teams are dedicated to the Southwest — something fire information officer Dick Fleishman said is rare for April.
In Flagstaff, erratic winds have grounded air resources.
Residents around Flagstaff questioned how a small blaze reported northeast of the college town Sunday afternoon ballooned to more than 30 square miles by Wednesday afternoon. Matt McGrath, a district ranger on the Coconino National Forest, said firefighters had corralled the wildfire Sunday and didn't see any smoke or active flames when they checked on it again Monday.
By Tuesday, the wind was firmly in control. Flames emerged and jumped the containment line, leaving firefighters and McGrath to ask themselves if they could have done something differently, he said.
"I can't tell you for sure, but I don't think so," McGrath said. "And I know that's not a satisfying answer when people are going through what they're going through right now."
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Another big fire southeast of Taos, New Mexico, also has burned more than 30 square miles, but it's in a rural area where no structures have been destroyed and a small number of evacuations ordered.
In Colorado, new wildfires prompted evacuations in Monte Vista, a city of about 4,150 people in the southern part of the state, and near Longmont. An undetermined number of structures burned but no one was injured, authorities said.
"We struggled at times to stay in front of this fire and stay out of the way of it because the winds and stuff were so strong," said Monte Vista Police Chief George Dingfelder.
The number of acres burned in the U.S. so far this year is about 30% above the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation have combined with spring winds to elevate the chances for more catastrophic fires.
Rocky Opliger, the incident commander on a wildfire that has burned about 3 square miles and forced evacuations south of Prescott, Arizona, said the conditions are some of the worst he's seen in nearly five decades of fighting wildland fires.
"This is very early to have this kind of fire behavior," he said. "Right now we are on the whims of weather."
About 25 structures have been lost in the Flagstaff-area fire. Coconino County officials late Wednesday pointed residents to a system where they could seek help with food, temporary housing and other needs. Some 765 homes were evacuated.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.