Battling Wildfires Harder Due to Extreme Heat in Southwest US

By ASTRID GALVAN and ANGIE WANG | June 23, 2017

An extreme heat wave in the Southwest U.S. made the fight against a series of wildfires more difficult this week, including one that has destroyed at least four homes in an Arizona town known for its wineries, authorities said.

Temperatures in parts of Arizona, California and Nevada soared to nearly 120 degrees this week, creating problems for firefighters. In California, two firefighters were treated for heat-related injuries as they battled a blaze in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles.

In New Mexico, authorities say a brush fire destroyed sheds and vehicles on private property and sent two residents and a firefighter to the hospital for smoke inhalation and other minor injuries.

In Arizona, about 100 firefighters battled a 2-square-mile blaze that ignited Tuesday in triple-digit temperatures in Sonoita, 45 miles southeast of Tucson. None of the wineries dotting the area was threatened.

“The heat is a major factor not only for us getting overheated but heat will rise up our embers, which will cause more fires to pick up,” said Joseph De Wolf, chief of the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District.

State forestry officials said six structures were destroyed but didn’t know how many were homes. De Wolf said earlier that four houses had burned. An additional 120 homes were at risk.

De Wolf said residents who have been evacuated were being escorted back to gather their livestock and other animals. He said he hoped to get people back in their homes by evening.

“The biggest challenge we have is the heat that’s going to come up this afternoon,” De Wolf said.

Ann Alden, who lives within a half mile of where the blaze started, said she fled her home Tuesday evening as soon as she saw the flames.

“My initial thought was that we were in big trouble,” Alden said.

The 70-year-old Alden had a plan in place once wildfire season arrived, but knew she had to leave quickly before the fire blocked her only way out of the area. She loaded three of her six horses into a trailer already hooked up to her truck, and put her two dogs in the backseat. Her cat went into a carrier onto the truck bed, along with an overnight bag. Alden called a friend to pick up the remaining horses.

“It was scary, obviously adrenaline was flowing,” she said.

Residents expressed concerns about their homes and livestock at a community meeting where the local fire chief spoke. One woman nervously asked about her burros, which had gotten loose. De Wolf told her one of his team members was working on gathering them.

De Wolf said crews were focusing on setting a perimeter around the fire, which was not contained.

Officials will also ensure firefighters are hydrated and safe amid the heat wave, Department of Forestry and Fire Management spokeswoman Tiffany Davila said.

The department said the cause of fire was not known but lightning strikes were reported in the area.

Firefighters across Arizona are battling about 30 blazes, making resources scarce, De Wolf said. He said he was asking Gov. Doug Ducey to help cover the financial costs of battling the fire.

Fires are burning throughout the southwest, including one in Utah that forced the evacuation of more than 700 people and shut down part of a state highway.

One home has been destroyed in the blaze and another was damaged in the fire sparked Saturday by someone using a torch to burn weeds. A fire official said that person could face charges for causing a fire that could cost more than $1 million to fight.

(AP reporters Angie Wang in Phoenix and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.)

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