The Show on KJZZ

Listen live weekdays at 9 a.m.

Tunnel Fire: The latest on the wildfire near Flagstaff

By Michel Marizco
Published: Tuesday, April 19, 2022 - 10:24pm
Updated: Thursday, May 12, 2022 - 12:46pm

May 12: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument burned, but not burned down

Hear Park Ranger Owen Ellis discuss the state of the monument with host Lauren Gilger on The Show

As the Tunnel Fire ravaged huge swaths of northern Arizona a few weeks ago, homes and forests were burned, as well as the entirety of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

Headlines read that the monument had burned "in its entirety," and the National Park Service confirmed as much.

But Owen Ellis says, while the wildfire did completely encompass the area, now that the smoke has cleared, it’s clear it isn’t completely destroyed.

Ellis is a park ranger at the monument, and he said that the effects of the fire are in fact ecologically appropriate.

The Show spoke with him to learn more about the monument's current status.

May 4: Tunnel Fire analysis finds damage to soil minimal

Tunnel Fire BAER team
USFS-Tunnel BAER Team
BAER Team members and Coconino County representatives inspect Schultz Fire mitigation structure in Lennox Avenue watershed in Tunnel Fire on May 1, 2022.

A team of investigators researching the immediate impacts from the Tunnel Fire in northern Arizona have completed their initial report on the damage. 

The Burned Area Response Team found that less than 1% of the soil of the Tunnel Fire’s 31 square miles suffered severe burns. That doesn’t include damage to the burned area’s vegetation. In fact, some 30 homes were destroyed in the fire and dozens more properties suffered damage.

But severe burns to soil can alter its physical and chemical properties and that’s what researchers were looking for. That can affect the productivity of the land and lead to erosion and flooding. About 8% more of the 19,000 scorched acres suffered moderate burns.

The most severe damage to the soil was on the northeastern fringes of the fire.

May 2: BAER team assessing area

As of Monday, the fire has burned 19,000 acres and is 95% contained.

A Burned Area Emergency Response, or BAER team, is currently assessing the next threats from the Tunnel Fire in northern Arizona. BAER teams are sent into areas ravaged by fires once they’ve been controlled to make fast evaluations for any flooding or debris.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

April 27: Wildfire warnings on a nearly daily basis

 

Hear Michel Marizco's interview With host Steve Goldstein on The Show
Your browser does not support the audio element.

 

 

Arizonans in the northern parts of the state are hearing warnings on a nearly daily basis about wildfire dangers.

In Coconino County, residents were warned April 26 of a fire weather watch for April 27 and another red flag day, the second in a week.

April 26: High winds expected on the Tunnel Fire this week

The Tunnel Fire in northern Arizona is now 20% contained after burning more than 30 square miles.

Coconino County Sheriff JIm Driscoll told the county board of supervisors the Tunnel Fire moved so quickly last week that residents had minutes to leave.

"Literally getting people out of their homes when they were starting to burn. So we are very happy with our folks, very proud of them," he said of his deputies, describing some who were covered head to toe in soot on the fire's first night.

 

 

Chief meteorologist Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service officials said winds moving more than 55 mph drove the Tunnel Fire. And they warned that winds are due later this week above 35 miles an hour.

Jason Lewis is an incident commander with Pacific Northwest Team 3. He said teams are being kept in place over the next few days.

"We’re going to continue to hold on to those folks. Get through this wind event and reassess our needs."

Fire officials also told the board they were worried about having enough resources this early in the year to fight fires that not only grew in Arizona but also neighboring New Mexico.

smoke in the distance
Eryn McGary
Smoke from the Tunnel Fire rises in the distance on April 23, 2022.

April 25: Tunnel Fire now 15% contained; officials warn of new winds later this week

Fire crews are managing to gain the upper hand against the Tunnel Fire that destroyed several dozen homes in northern Arizona last week.

The fire is now 15% contained and residents of evacuated areas were able to return home Sunday. But winds are expected to return later this week.

Coconino County officials announced they have begun property damage assessments. 

The fire damaged or destroyed 109 properties in northeastern Flagstaff. 

U.S. Forest Service officials predicted record-breaking conditions for more fires this time of year. 

flames from the tunnel fire
InciWeb
The Tunnel Fire as seen from Bonito Park in northern Arizona on April 19, 2022.

April 23: Forecasted winds will shift direction of the Tunnel Fire this weekend

The Tunnel Fire, fueled by strong winds outside Flagstaff, remains barely contained by more than 300 people.

Coconino National forest officials said this week that normal firefighting resources haven’t yet been deployed for the year. And that is hampering efforts as 14 fires have sprung up in Arizona and New Mexico alone.

Here in Flagstaff, U.S. government officials gave the first indication of the investigation into the Tunnel Fire. Coconino National Forest district ranger Matt McGrath spoke at a community meeting in Flagstaff Saturday afternoon and ruled out lightning.

"I don’t know if it was a campfire. I don’t know what caused it. We have an investigation going. We know there was no lightning that day," he said.

He said the fire started in an area of the forest where camping is permitted but campfires are prohibited year-round.

The National Weather Service anticipates a shift in the winds this weekend. They will blow southwest, essentially bringing the fire back toward Flagstaff area neighborhoods. But powerful gusts like those that caused the fire to explode are not expected until later in the week.

Tunnel Fire Flagstaff
Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management
Tunnel Fire activity on April 19, 2022.

April 22: Tunnel Fire embers cross the fire line in strong winds Friday morning

Hear Michel Marizco discuss the Tunnel Fire with host Lauren Gilger on The Show
Your browser does not support the audio element.

Fire crews were finally able to engage the Tunnel Fire with air assets Thursday but are facing a new push from strong winds descending on the 20,000-acre wildfire.

The U.S. Forest Service used several helicopters, an air attack plane and nearly 600 firefighters and hand crews on the large fire. Strong winds continued through the night and the National Weather Service in Flagstaff said it expects strong winds pushing 50 mph east of the San Francisco Peaks. Right onto the fire.

At one point early this morning, embers crossed the fire line and created a new spot fire about an acre in size.

"That’s the conditions we’re dealing with. The winds can blow a hot ember out anywhere on this fire," said Dick Fleishman, public information officer for the Forest Service.

A light rain is expected Friday morning but a wind advisory is called for parts of the Mogollon Rim.

 

April 21: Ducey declares state of emergency for Tunnel Fire

 

 

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency in Coconino County on Thursday due to the fast-growing Tunnel Fire.

The fire has burned more than 20,000 acres just outside of Flagstaff as of Thursday. More than 25 structures have burned and fire crews are battling growing winds, which Ducey cited in his emergency declaration.

"This is fire season, this fire season has started earlier and it’s more intense so we want to get the proper resources there so we can get our arms around this fire to the best of our ability," Ducey said.

Ducey warned Arizonans to take care against possible future fires that could grow out of control.

The cause of the fire is still being investigated.

Michel Marizco

April 20: Strong winds ground air assets as residents learn about fire's beginnings

Listen to this story
Your browser does not support the audio element.

Flagstaff residents learned Wednesday night that they will be in for a tough weekend from the Tunnel Fire with no evident end. But they also learned about the fire’s beginnings.

Eryn McGary was out hiking the hill she hikes nearly every day Sunday afternoon when she saw what she first thought might be a campfire except for its size. She called it in.

That was the first warning the U.S. Forest Service received on an otherwise calm weather day of what would become the Tunnel Fire. The fire was pushing 20,000 acres by Wednesday night and has proven impossible to contain so far. It is propelled by a weather system so powerful, it has grounded planes and in one night grew so fast and so strong that firefighters safest tactic was to get out of its way and try to save what was left.

McGary didn’t know that yet. She was playing it safe and calling in a fire that at point was maybe a half acre in size.

“They said they were sending engines out and they had it under control. So I didn’t worry about it too much after that. They said it was three acres at that point,” she said.

She was frustrated at the public meeting Coconino County and the U.S. government hosted at Sinagua Middle School in Flagstaff Wednesday night.

“Well, I thought it was under control and I was informed that it was under control and we didn’t see a lot of smoke but we were seeing some smoke for another couple days,” she said.

Eryn and Kris McGary
Michel Marizco
Eryn and Kris McGary addressed the U.S. Forest Service with their concerns over how the initial reporting of the fire was managed. Eryn called the fire in.

On Tuesday, McGary’s father called to warn the fire was ramping up. Wind speeds had increased by then to upwards of 50 miles an hour east of the San Francisco Peaks.

“And so we went to clean our property up, clean the pine needles up and everything like that and it got so bad that we were finally escorted out by the sheriff’s office,” she said.

Eryn McGary and her husband’s home survived. Their next door neighbor’s did not.

 

The wind is worth learning about because it is playing such a key role in the size and behavior of this fire. Brian Klimowski is chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.

“Tuesday started relatively quiet. Winds were not that strong,” he told the audience in the school auditorium.

And suddenly the winds grew. And when that happens “the winds are funneled over and then down on the other side, on the lee side of the peaks.”

Which is where that fire Eryn McGary called in smoldered and seethed.

“It’s these same conditions that cause the extension of these strong winds overnight,” he said.

 

Tuesday night the winds howled until nearly dawn. And the Tunnel Fire grew from 6,000 acres in the afternoon to 16,000 by dawn.

Michel Marizco
Chief meteorologist Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service in Flagstaff explains the winds that are driving the Tunnel Fire.

Matt McGrath is chief of the ranger district. When McGary called, two crews were dispatched to watch.

“They were out there from 4:30 until approximately 8:30,” he said.

The fire wasn’t out but it was contained with no smoke.

“But we understand that often times that doesn’t mean the possibility of a flame lingering or an ember. And so that’s why they go back Monday morning,” McGrath said.

Again, there were no smoke or flames. And then they returned Tuesday.

“And that’s when they got back and there was smoke and there was flames and that point the winds had taken such a dramatic turn that it was too much to handle and off the fire went,” he said.

On Wednesday the wind was more calm but still strong enough to ground the U.S. government’s fleet it could have used to fight the fire.

By Thursday, Klimowski said, a new Red Flag warning will be in place. Then cooler Friday but with stronger winds.

“We’re looking at gusts up to 50 mph on Friday,” he said.

He left the lectern with a warning.

“Folks, we have entered our fire season, OK? It’s going to be a long one this year.”

April 20: Tunnel Fire swells to more than 16,000 acres; Flagstaff holds community meeting

situation map updated by Coconino County shows a wide swath of neighborhoods and public lands now under either mandatory evacuation or warnings to prepare for one. The fire grew by more than 10,000 acres as powerful winds continued to rock the region throughout the night. 

Fire officials said a Type 1 Incident Management Team will be deployed but won’t arrive until Thursday. More than 750 hundreds were evacuated by late Tuesday. A community meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. today at Sinagua Middle School in Flagstaff.

smoke rises from a fire
InciWeb
The Tunnel Fire in Coconino County on April 19, 2022.

April 19: More than 700 homes evacuated, dozens burn as Flagstaff's Tunnel Fire erupts

Listen to this story
Your browser does not support the audio element.

The Tunnel Fire destroyed an estimated two dozen structures in northern Arizona and in just a day, grew to 6,000 acres while more than 700 homes were evacuated. 

Coconino County and U.S. government officials briefed worried residents as a persistent wind roared outside the Summit Fire Department in Flagstaff’s Doney Park. 

"I think so many of us have expected and anticipated this for the last several years and we’ve been able to dodge that until today," said Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll.

He said law enforcement started evacuating residents along U.S. 89 from Timberline, Fernwood and Wupatki trails neighborhoods Tuesday. He described a chaotic scene that even now is still too dangerous for officers to enter to get an accurate count of what was lost. Driscoll said at least one person called to say they were trapped in their home and couldn’t get out. 

 

 

"We couldn’t get back to that area because the fire was already in it."

Their fate remained unknown. Deputies were also called to homes where children were alone but Driscoll said when deputies arrived at those houses, they were empty.

Fire officials described a fast moving fire moving at several miles an hour with 100-foot flames driven by powerful gusts of seasonal winds that topped 50 miles an hour nearly all day Tuesday and into the night. 

"We’re starting to get pretty good at this, an unfortunate situation, but we’ve been here before and we’re learning how to do this I think a little more effectively." he said.

Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll is it's “a very difficult evacuation procedure" due to the speed of the Tunnel Fire on April 19, 2022.

Coconino National Forest District Ranger Matt McGrath said the fire was first called in Sunday afternoon. He said a fire investigation team will arrive Wednesday to determine the cause of the fire. He said Flagstaff residents should prepare for regular closings of the national forest. Something he called a new normal.

"This is unusual for us. Last year was a difficult year, the previous year was a difficult year, every year is tough and getting tougher and tougher," he said.

McGrath noted hotshot crews arrived in Flagstaff a week ago, earlier than they have in previous years. 

Flagstaff Ranger District Fire management officer True Brown said air assets were called in Tuesday.

"But had to set those resources down due to the pretty much unprecedented winds that we were experiencing out here on the fire," he said.

Brown described a firefighting strategy that mostly focused on evacuation.

 

"This is unusual for us. Last year was a difficult year, the previous year was a difficult year, every year is tough and getting tougher and tougher."
— Matt McGrath, Coconino National Forest District

 

"When fire is moving that rapidly, really the best course of action is just getting folks out of the way."

Jeff Williams was evacuated Tuesday. Like many in Flagstaff on Tuesday night, his thoughts were on the wind, but also on his home. He hasn't been able to return.

"Like they were saying today, if the wind shifts, it could come right back into the neighborhood," he said.

He criticized fire officials, asking why they didn’t fight the fire Sunday when it was first spotted.

"It’s a dangerous area for fires this time of the year. It just blows my mind that history continues to repeat itself because of human error," Williams said.

He said he’ll stay with friends for now. Officials said the area will be closed to the public for at least two days.

The Tunnel Fire as seen from Mount Elden Lookout
Coconino National Forest
The Tunnel Fire as seen from Mount Elden Lookout on April 19, 2022.

More Stories From KJZZ

FronterasThe Show Climate Change Wildfires