KACHINA VILLAGE, Ariz. — Hundreds of firefighters worked Thursday to protect communities on the edge of Flagstaff from a wildfire that is chewing up a scenic canyon with towering flames and burning entire trees down to nothing but ash.
The human-caused Slide Fire started Tuesday and had burned 7.5 square miles in and around Oak Creek Canyon, a scenic recreation area along the highway between Sedona and Flagstaff that normally would be teeming with tourists as the Memorial Day weekend approaches. There were no reports so far of injuries or structures burned.
Fire incident commander Tony Sciacca said the fire was 3 to 3 1/2 miles from the residential areas of Forest Highlands and Katina Village, where 3,200 people remained under pre-evacuation warnings. The blaze was not contained, but firefighters were pleased that it had only grown a couple hundred acres overnight after increasing tenfold the previous day.
They were mindful of the fire's dangers, however, as they looked at giant flames shooting up the walls of the canyon and saw how hot the fire was burning in the tinder-dry drought conditions.
"The fuels are just so dry, entire trees are turning to ash," said Dick Fleishman, a spokesman for fire managers.
A primary focus for firefighters will be to pinch off the fire where it has reached the top of the canyon's northeast corner to keep it from burning northward toward residential areas, he said.
Firefighters are also taking extra steps to make sure they don't lose communication with crews in the steep canyons. They brought in "repeaters" on overlooks that look like 20-foot antennas to maintain radio contact with firefighters below. Radio communication issues were a problem last year in a fire in nearby Prescott that killed 19 firefighters who were part of a hotshot crew.
"If the fire makes any unfavorable movement, we know about it and I can alert them," said firefighter Rich Sack of the Carson Hotshots in Taos, N.M., as he held a radio and intently kept an eye on the fire.
The weather may help even as winds picked up Thursday afternoon with the prospect of higher humidity and a chance of rain by Friday, Fleishman said. Although thunderstorms could bring much-needed rain and moisture to dampen the blaze, he said, it could also deliver lightning strikes that could start additional fires and powerful downdrafts that could push the blaze erratically in all directions.
"That's what happened with the Prescott guys last year," he said.
The fire has closed the main road between Sedona and Flagstaff. It's burning near Slide Rock State Park, a popular recreation area because of its natural rock water slides.