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Wildfires force hundreds to evacuate in Arizona and California

The number of square miles burned so far this year is more than double the 10-year national average.

A fire engine is seen in Wrightwood, California.
A fire engine is seen in Wrightwood, California.
Image: AP/PA Images

THE WESTERN US has had another day of hot, dry and windy weather as crews from California to New Mexico battled wildfires that forced hundreds of people to leave their homes.

Several hundred homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona, were evacuated and the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort was closed as a precaution because of a wildfire — the second to hit the area this year.

Crews were expecting gusts of up to 50mph as they battled the blaze that has burned through parts of the footprint left by another springtime fire that destroyed more than two dozen homes.

No homes have been lost in the fire that started on Sunday and has burned about eight square miles.

“It’s literally like deja vu,” said Coconino County sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton. “We are in the same exact spot doing the same exact thing as we were a month and a half ago. People are tired.”

Wildfires broke out early this spring in multiple states in the western US, where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires.

The number of square miles burned so far this year is more than double the 10-year national average, and states like New Mexico have set records with devastating blazes that have destroyed hundreds of homes while causing environmental damage that is expected to affect future water supplies.

Nationally, more than 6,200 wildland firefighters were battling nearly three dozen uncontained fires that had burned more than a million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre.

california-wildfires The Sheep fire burns in Wrightwood. Source: Ringo H.W. Chiu

Even in Alaska, forecasters have warned that many fires in the south west corner of the state have experienced exceptional growth over the last week, which is unusual for the area.

South-west Alaska normally experiences shorter periods of high fire danger as intermittent rain can provide relief, but since mid-May the region has been hot and windy, helping to dry out vegetation.

Favourable weather on Monday helped slow the progression of a tundra wildfire just over three miles from an Alaska Native village.

Moderate temperatures and a shift in the wind that had been driving the fire towards St Mary’s will allow firefighters to directly attack the flames and increase safety protections for the Yup’ik community.

The lightning-sparked fire is estimated at about 193 square miles. It is burning in dry grass and shrubs in the mostly treeless tundra in south-west Alaska.

arizona-wildfire Smoke rises above neighborhoods on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. Source: AP/PA Images

In California, evacuation orders were in place on Monday for remote homes near a wildfire that flared up over the weekend north east of Los Angeles near the Pacific Crest Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains.

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The blaze saw renewed growth on Sunday afternoon and by night-time had burned about 1.5 square miles of pine trees and dry brush, officials said.

Aside from mandatory evacuations for some residents, the remainder of the mountain town of Wrightwood, with about 4,500 residents, was under an evacuation warning. Several roads were closed.

To the west in Los Angeles County, firefighters quickly corralled a wildfire that erupted on Sunday in foothills above Duarte. No homes were threatened.

Fire conditions were elevated because of warm and dry weekend weather across southern California. Monday was expected to be cooler, but another heatwave was expected in the middle of the week, the National Weather Service said.

In northern California, a 50-mile stretch of State Route 70 was closed indefinitely on Monday after mud, boulders and dead trees inundated lanes during flash floods along a wildfire burn scar.

Several drivers were rescued on Sunday evening from debris flowing on the highway when hillsides burned bare by last year’s enormous Dixie Fire came loose. No injuries were reported.

The causes of the latest California fires were under investigation.

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