Tunnel Fire in Arizona nearly triples in size amid high winds

WEATHER NEWS: Tunnel Fire in Arizona nearly triples in size amid high winds

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Strong winds are rapidly spreading a fire about 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., as authorities call for hundreds of homes to be evacuated.

As of Wednesday morning, the Tunnel Fire in Coconino County had grown to more than 16,000 acres — expanding from only 6,000 acres on Tuesday evening. The U.S. Forest Service’s InciWeb stated the fire was reported on Sunday at 4:22 p.m. and the cause is under investigation.

The county sheriff’s office estimated about 25 structures were lost and more than 250 structures are threatened. Some flames were reportedly 100 feet high, while winds reached 50 mph.

The blaze, which is zero percent contained, shut down Route 89 in both directions north of Flagstaff. The highway will be closed for several days due to firefighting operations, the Forest Service reported.

Fueled by climate change, costly Southwest drought isn’t going away

On Tuesday, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency due to the fire’s impacts, allowing the county to expend emergency funds. The Forest Service reported that approximately 260 firefighters, three bulldozers, 24 engines, one air-attack plane and one Type 3 helicopter were battling the blaze.

The fire exploded amid very strong winds and low humidity. The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center had declared “critical” fire weather as the flames spread Tuesday, cautioning that relative humidity levels would drop as low as 10 to 15 percent amid winds of 20 to 30 mph, gusting to 50 mph. A wind advisory and red flag warning, for dangerous fire weather, were also in effect.

Winds eased some on Wednesday, but dangerous fire weather is expected to return Thursday. A fire weather watch is in effect for much of northern Arizona due to low humidity and winds that could gust to 35 mph.

“The combination of gusty winds and low humidity can cause fire to rapidly grow in size and intensity before first responders” can contain it, the Weather Service office serving Flagstaff wrote.

It will remain windy on Friday, but humidity is forecast to increase.

“Dry weather and lighter winds are forecast for the weekend,” the Weather Service in Flagstaff wrote in a discussion.

Severe to exceptional drought covers much of the western half of the United States. Eight-six percent of Arizona is enduring drought conditions, according the federal government’s drought monitor.

Southwest drought is the most extreme in 1,200 years, study finds

The National Interagency Fire Center predicted above-normal fire activity for the Southwest this spring and summer, given an expectation for abnormally warm and dry weather in the coming months.

Human-caused climate change, which raises temperatures and intensifies dry conditions, is increasing the threat of fast-moving blazes. Springtime temperatures in Arizona rose more than two degrees over the past 45 years. A 2016 report by Climate Central, a nonprofit science communication group, found that Arizona is expected to see more than a month of additional high-risk fire days each year by 2050.

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