Authorities said that about 766 homes and 2,000 residents were evacuated from area, north of Flagstaff, on Tuesday evening following the rapid approach of the blaze, called the Tunnel Fire.
The fire, which started on Sunday afternoon about 14 miles northeast of the city, was burning across 6,000 acres on Tuesday evening.
Around 12 hours later the fire had across more than 16,000 acres, according to InciWeb, a US government disaster information database.
Some two dozen buildings were reportedly destroyed and the 89 state highway, which connects remote parts of northern Arizona with Flagstaff, remains shut.
Wind speeds up to 50mph were able to carry the flames towards an area of scattered homes, dry grass and Ponderosa pine trees on the outskirts of Flagstaff, authorities said.
“It’s good in that it’s not headed toward a very populated area, and it’s headed toward less fuel,” said Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith on Tuesday night.
“But depending on the intensity of the fire, fire can still move across cinders”.
An emergency was declared on Tuesday because of the wildfire’s size and wind speeds, with ash raining from the sky above popular hiking trails.
Tunnel Fire Update and Declaration of Emergency
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Tunnel Fire, located 14 miles northeast of flagstaff, started Sunday, April 17, and has spread to over 6,000 acres due to extremely high winds. More at https://t.co/9CQa7JWbav. pic.twitter.com/WAaNxBCzv5
— Coconino County (@CoconinoCounty) April 20, 2022
“To see flames several yards away from your property line and to hear the propane tanks bursting in the background, it was very surreal,” Ali Taranto, a local resident, told reporters.
“Ash falling down. It was crazy.”
The fire is moving northeast, away from Flagstaff, the county seat of Coconino County.
Peak fire season in the US Southwest is typically from May to mid-July, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
A 2016 report from Climate Central says that as the climate crisis deepens, fire season across the West will likely grow longer. Arizona is predicted to have 34 more “high wildfire potential days” by 2050, the highest of any state in the US.
As wildfires burn they pump more planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere - fuelling a feedback loop of hotter temperatures which drive conditions that risk more wildfires.
“There is no ‘wildfire season’ anymore in Arizona. Fires can happen year-round,” the state Department of Forestry and Fire Management notes on its website.
This year is already shaping up to be a severe fire season. Most of Arizona and the Southwest, which remains in drought, will see higher-than-normal fire potential by June, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This part of Coconino County is currently in “abnormally dry” and “moderate drought” conditions, via Drought.gov.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press