PHOENIX >> Multiple wildfires have prompted evacuations in southern Arizona and a highway closure in northern Arizona as the state heads into peak wildfire season.
Rising temperatures, dry vegetation and lighting continue to spark fires throughout the state. Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman for the state forestry department, said wildfires this year have outpaced those to date last year.
In 2017, Arizona has seen 830 wildfires that burned about 200 square miles (518 sq. kilometers), up from the 819 fires that burned about 165 square miles (427 sq. kilometers) to date last year. There are currently 20 active fires in Arizona, some of which are controlled burns that don’t endanger homes or landmarks.
Arizona’s wildfire season generally spans from mid-May to early July, but is extended by several weeks every year, Davila said.
State forestry officials predicted two months ago southern Arizona would have a higher fire risk than northern, forested parts of the state, because winter rain and snow increased the amount of vegetation that fuels fires in later months after it dries out.
On Friday, the National Weather Service warned northwest Arizona residents that high winds and low humidity could cause fires to spread more easily in the afternoon and evening.
The heightened fire danger means campfires and other activities that could start fires should be avoided. The area under a so-called “red flag warning” includes the entire Kaibab National Forest and includes the area north of Flagstaff where a wildfire forces a highway closure.
Officials closed a section of State Route 180 about 10 miles north of Flagstaff Thursday night because smoke from a fire burning on the slopes of Kendrick Mountain restricted visibility. The fire grew to more than 2 square miles (5 sq. kilometers) Thursday because of high winds. It was ignited after lightning struck a wilderness area west of the state highway last week.
Dry lightning, or lighting without rain, is more common in summer months leading up to monsoon season, said Hector Vasquez, a spokesman for the National Weather Service. As more moisture pulls into Arizona, rains begin to accompany the lightning storms, decreasing fire danger.
In southern Arizona, hundreds of Cochise County residents have evacuated or are prepared to leave at a moment’s notice to escape wildfires that have already destroyed an empty home. The two wildfires caused by lightning in the mountains east of Benson merged early Friday morning.
Cochise County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carol Capas said Friday about 30 families in Cochise Stronghold and half of Dragoon’s residents have evacuated their homes, running from a wildfire that has charred about 12 square miles (31 sq. kilometers) since it started Tuesday afternoon.
Capas said the rest of the community is ready to flee.
Gerry Perry, a spokesman for the Coronado National Forest, said 220 firefighters and 25 engines are managing the fire. He said he has no estimate for when it will be contained, and he expects it will be a long fight.