1,500 people evacuated in Utah, northern Arizona as winds, temperatures fuel wildfires
(CNN) — Wildfires fueled by gusty winds and high temperatures raged for another day in Utah and Arizona, displacing communities as hundreds of firefighters battled the blazes.
The National Weather Service placed a majority of Utah and northern Arizona under critical fire watch Wednesday as a heat wave made its way through the Southwest this week.
Authorities have evacuated people in dozens of communities surrounding the Brian Head Fire in Utah and the Goodwin Fire in Arizona.
At least 1,500 people have been evacuated, and 13 homes and eight buildings destroyed by the Brian Head Fire, according to Brian Head fire spokeswoman Elayn Briggs.
Officials with Brian Head town and Iron County are expected to lift the evacuation order at 7 a.m. on Friday.
As of Thursday morning, the Brian Head Fire had burned more than 54,200 acres in Utah. More than 1,600 personnel are battling the fire, which is 10% contained.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told CNN affiliate KSTU that a man using a weed torch caused the fire, but it is still under investigation.
The Utah Department of Public Safety released two 911 calls from June 17, when the fire first began. One of the calls, KSTU reported, came from a man who witnessed the fire and the other came from the man who allegedly started the fire.
“The cabin owner has a fire going,” the first man says in the call. “He’s burning off shrub around his cabin. The fire is massive.”
The second caller tells the 911 dispatcher that he has a “fire getting out of control.”
“I need help,” the man says in the call.
The fire is expected to be contained by July 15.
July Fourth fireworks
Temperatures are expected to remain high ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, according to Joe Dougherty, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
“Temperatures will be in the 80s and 90s for northern Utah, and in southern Utah where the Brian Head Fire is, it’s expected to have temperatures up to the high 90s by Saturday,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty said there is a “very big possibility” that the high temperatures could spark more fires during the rest of the week and warned residents against increasing the risk by using fireworks.
“We keep urging caution, especially as we come close to the Fourth of July holiday, that people take exceptional care with their fireworks,” he said. “They need to heed any warnings related to fireworks regarding the area that they’re allowed to be lit because we frankly don’t need any more fires, especially human-caused fires.”
Two wildfires have flourished off the hot and dry climate in Arizona.
The Frye Fire in the Coronado National Forest was ignited by a lightning strike on June 7, and has reached 39,051 acres.
It’s 45% contained so far, and officials hope to fully contain it by July 30.
The Goodwin Fire burning in the Prescott National Forest has reached 20,644 acres with just 1% containment as of Thursday morning. About 750 personnel are involved.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a State of Emergency in Yavapai County on Wednesday in response to the Goodwin Fire, directing $200,000 of emergency funds to help contain the fire.
Ducey tweeted he will travel to Yavapai County on Thursday to “meet with local officials, receive a full briefing and visit” with those impacted by the fire.
The size of the Goodwin Fire is expected to increase because of high winds, said spokeswoman Debbie Maneely of the US Forest Service.
Nearly four years ago to the date, 19 firefighters from Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots died battling a wildfire a few miles away from where the Goodwin Fire is burning.
Preparing for the worst
The Goodwin Fire has led to the evacuation of several Arizona towns, including Mayer, Dewey and Walker.
Officials have also ordered the pre-evacuation of Orme School in Mayer and closed nine youth summer camps as precautionary measures.
Barbara Rice lives in Prescott, just off Highway 69, which was recently closed when the Goodwin Fire crossed it.
“We are a good 12 miles away from the fire. We live in the mountains, so we can see the huge plume of smoke. It’s disconcerting,” Rice said.
She received texts telling her to prepare to evacuate, but they are not under a pre-evacuation notice at this point.
“This is the first time I’ve ever done this. I’ve pulled out my family photos and important records and I know exactly what I have to grab if we have to leave,” said Rice, who lives with her husband and her dog.
Rice said fires are always a threat, especially during the summer.
“We have a lot of people that come to spend a few cool days up in the mountains and away from the Phoenix heat and a lot of these fires are human-caused. Some are lightning-caused, but it’s a big worry up here during the summer,” she said.
“My plan is to go buy some Starbucks gift cards and hand them out to any of the firefighters I see,” Rice said.
“They do a lot for us.”
Fire near California base
A small wildfire erupted Wednesday night near Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps training base in southern California.
The fire, also called the Christianos Fire, had scorched about 300 acres as of Wednesday night. It was about 400 acres at its height, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.
About 350 firefighters were dispatched to battle the fire. It is unclear how much of it is contained. No evacuations have been ordered.
Fatal heat wave
The wildfires have not claimed any lives, but the heat wave in the region could be blamed for the deaths of at least four people.
A 72-year-old man and an 87-year-old woman died Monday in San Jose, California, as a result of the heat wave, Santa Clara County officials said.
In New Mexico, two hikers were found dead this week at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and heat could have been a factor in their deaths, authorities told CNN affiliate KRIS.
An end in sight?
CNN senior meteorologist Dave Hennen said the weather should improve for firefighters Thursday. He said the critical fire area in the Southwest is expected to shrink that day, but not for long.
“The temporary break we see tomorrow may be short-lived and the fire danger may begin to slowly ramp up over the weekend as we head into the Fourth of July holiday,” he said.