Tunnel Fire burns north of Flagstaff: Highway 89 reopens, evacuation orders lifted

An Arizona wildfire dubbed the Tunnel Fire has more than tripled in size as relentless winds pushed the flames through neighborhoods on the outskirts of Flagstaff, forcing out hundreds of residents and destroying at least 30 homes and other structures.

As of April 29, the fire has destroyed 19,075 acres with 95% containment. Fire officials say the acreage has been reduced due to more accurate depiction of the fire's edge in certain areas.

Ready, Set, Go evacuation orders

The following communities are in SET mode, meaning to be alert and know there is significant danger in your area.

  • Hutchison Acres
  • Anasazi Trails
  • North end of Doney Park
  • From Landfill North to Campbell
  • Areas north of Luepp Road
  • Areas south of Stone House Wash to the Navajo Nation border
  • Residents north of Lenox road, south of Forest Service Road 545

Communities on READY status: 

  • Residents along the Highway 89 corridor, from Campbell Avenue to Forest Service Road 545
  • Timberline
  • Fernwood
  • Lenox Park
  • Girls Ranch Road
  • Wupatki Trails
  • Antelope Hills
  • Areas north and east of Moon Crater in Alpine Ranchos

Evacuated residents no longer under the "GO" order are asked to check in at the north parking lot of the Silver Saddle Trading Post at 9001 N US Highway 89 in Flagstaff with ID or other documents verifying their address before going back to their neighborhoods.

Road closures

  • Forest Road 545

Other closures:

  • City of Flagstaff Cinder Lake Landfill and Hazardous Products Center
  • Sunset Crater, Wupatki national monuments

Food, shelter

A Red Cross Shelter is open for residents evacuated due to the Tunnel Fire at the Sinagua Middle School, located at 3950 E. Butler Ave. (928-527-5500)

Household animals can be taken to the Coconino Humane Association at 3501 E. Butler Ave. (928-526-1076) Horses, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens can be taken to the Fort Tuthill County Stables. "The stables are self-service. Bring cages for smaller livestock," authorities said.

Those in need of food can get ready-made food and boxes at The Guidance Center at 2695 E Industrial Dr.

Call Center: (928) 679-8525

Behavioral Health: 1-877-756-4090

Latest updates: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/8068

Coconino County wildfire assistance information https://www.coconino.az.gov

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Courtesy of Ed Harmon

Timeline of the Tunnel Fire

May 4

The Burned Area Emergency Response Team (BAER) has been surveying the damage caused by the fire, and what it means as monsoon season nears.

Officials with the BAER team assembled for this wildfire say since April 30, they have been assessing damage to the soil, utilizing satellite imagery to look at the soil and vegetation damage.

"Our observed soil burn severity, it's on the lower end of things," said Brendan Waterman, the BAER team lead for the Tunnel Fire. "I think fire-wide, we're looking at 92% of the fire was either unburned or low soil burned severity. The big triggers for accelerated erosion and increased run off. it's the areas with moderate and high."

Almost 5,000 acres are considered unburned, while 13,000 acres are identified as low-burn. Meanwhile, almost 1,500 acres of land sustained moderate burn, and approximately 11 acres are classified as high burn areas.

"I don't want to say it resets the flood risk, because the initial burn scar, it burned all the way to the top of the mountain and really steep topography with really steep canyons, and the soil burn severity on that was a lot higher," said Waterman.

Officials say some areas are considered re-burned, as parts of the land burned by this wildfire contain burn scars from the Schultz Fire in 2010.

Meanwhile, the additional damage will present possible threats to downstream communities as monsoon season creeps in. Tonto National Forest Hydrologist Kelly Mott Lacroix said she has similar concerns about monsoon threats every year.

"Monsoon season is always unpredictable," said Lacroix. "The danger associated with monsoon storms really depends on the storm and the year."

Officials with the National Weather Service released their monsoon prediction on May 4, and the prediction calls for a normal or above-normal monsoon season.

May 2

April 29

April 27

The veteran we profiled below, Dave Barthman, now has a new home, with the help of many who reached out.

"Things are slowly starting to get back to normal," said Barthman. "It’s unfortunate this happened, but there are worse things in life. You just gotta work around it."

Besides Barthman's home, his Vietnam War medals and his uniform were all lost in the fire.

"The memories are still there," said Barthman.

Rick Kreiberg, who founded a Phoenix-based nonprofit called ‘Veterans Affinity,’ heard Barthman’s story, and immediately wanted to help.

"I can talk to him, figure out exactly who he is, where he came from, put it together, and then represent those awards to him," said Kreiberg.

Kreiberg's nonprofit plans to replace the materials Barthman lost, and Kreiberg is meeting up with Barthman in Flagstaff on April 28.

"A lot of veterans we forget that we were once somebody, so these medals are a reminder that we used to be somebody, and we did something right," said Kreiberg.

For now, Barthman is just focusing on the motto ‘this too shall pass.’

"Life is like a roller coaster," said Barthman. "You have good times and bad times. You just have to endure the bad times."

Veterans Affinity hopes to present Barthman with the medals in the next few weeks.

April 24

As residents returned to their homes a week after the fire began, some came to a site where their home is no longer standing.

Evacuations have been lowered to "SET" status for all neighborhoods involved in the Tunnel Fire.

"Residents returning to the area are reminded that the conditions and status of evacuation levels could change at any time based on fire behavior," said fire officials.

Highway 89 has reopened, according to the Arizona Dept. of Transportation. It was originally closed between mileposts 425 and 445.

April 23

At around 8:30 p.m. on April 23, Coconino County Sheriff's Office says evacuated residents in "GO" mode along Highway 89 can return to their homes on April 24 at 9 a.m. and they will be placed into "SET" mode. 

"The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office is pleased to announce that we are lifting the "GO" evacuation order as of 9:00 AM Sunday morning April 24th, 2022, for the residents living in the neighborhoods along Highway 89. The Tunnel Fire Incident Management Team has determined that the status and condition of the fire at this time is no longer an imminent threat to the neighborhoods along Highway 89 and has recommended allowing residents back into their homes," says Meg Miller with the sheriff's office.

Miller explained re-entry protocols, saying, "The Sheriff’s Office will begin the re-entry of these residents at 9:00 AM Sunday, April 24, 2022. Evacuated residents are instructed to report in person to the north parking lot of the Silver Saddle Trading Post, located at 9001 N US Highway 89 in Flagstaff, AZ. Residents will be required to show identification or other documents verifying their address before they are allowed entry. Residents are required to check in at this location prior to accessing the neighborhood. Once the check-in process has been completed, residents will be able to access their properties."

More information on re-entry can be found here https://coconino.az.gov/2894/Tunnel-Fire

RELATED: Community impacted by Tunnel Fire critical of wildfire response: 'What took so long?'

April 22

NAU helps students and staff

Northern Arizona University is helping students and staff impacted by the wildfire. NAU's president, José Luis Cruz Rivera, has authorized $50,000 to go to the victims. $25,000 will go to the United Way of Arizona. The other $25,000 will go to the Lumberjack Emergency Assistance Fund.

The money comes from the president's Discretionary Community Engagement Fund. 

Rivera is urging others to donate if they can.

"In the past several days, most of us have followed the relentless burning of the Tunnel Fire with great interest and much concern, standing by ready to help and jumping in to do so when called upon. In the last 24 hours alone, I’ve had direct conversations with three members of our university community whose lives have been deeply affected by the fire and have learned of many others who are living minute-by-minute in fear of what may be in store for them and their loved ones. As we head into the weekend, I want to call all Lumberjacks to action."

For more information on how you can help: bit.ly/36DesdN.

Crews hope fire lines hold as they cope with strong winds

Mother nature is not helping out much in the battle against the fire burning near Flagstaff. It actually feels like winter up here. We've seen rain and even snow showers pass through the area. Unfortunately, officials say the precipitation is not making a dent in the Tunnel Fire because winds are much stronger. Evacuation orders remain in effect for about 750 homes.

Crews were surprised by a spot fire overnight, which popped on the western flank close to homes in Timberline Estates.

The front of the fire is moving north and northeast of Flagstaff. The pop-up fire burned 300 acres.

This morning, it rained for a couple of hours and this afternoon, a snow shower passed through, but officials say the ferocious winds that have been whipping throughout the day have pretty much wiped out any effects of moisture.

The good news is there are now nearly 400 fire personnel out here, battling the massive wildfire.

"Total of nine 20-person hand crews, a lot of them are digging lines, trying to get in front of this fire," said Dick Fleishman, public information officer for the Tunnel Fire. "We have 30 engines. We have five bulldozers. We actually almost doubled in size the personnel from yesterday to today."

Two arrested for trespassing into evacuation zone

Coconino County Sheriff's Office deputies went door-to-door overnight, making sure the homes in the path of the spot fire were empty. They're asking residents to please be patient and leave the area for their own safety.

Deputies arrested two people in an evacuation area near the Timberline Community after one reportedly tried to access the restricted site with a UTV. The man, identified as Tom Clyde, faces a DUI charge after authorities say he was intoxicated.

The other suspect, identified as Gary Sharp, allegedly ran a roadblock and fell into the closed-off area. When he fled, officials say he almost hit public works employees and a deputy who had been trying to stop him. He faces charges of violating the fire ban, felony flight, endangerment and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

"It’s not understandable to run a roadblock.. it’s not understandable to almost hit an officer. We do understand the frustration and there’s a lot of anxiety to get back in," said John Paxton of the Coconino County Sheriff's Office.

Firefighters are bracing for the return of ferocious winds in the Southwest after a brief reprieve allowed them to attack flames from the air for the first time in days as a half-dozen large wildfires burn in Arizona and New Mexico.

More than 500 firefighters were manning fire lines in the two states and more help was on the way Friday when the largest type of management team is scheduled to take command of resources at one of the biggest, most dangerous fires near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Sustained winds of 30-50 mph (48-80 kph) are forecast there Friday morning, with gusts from 60-80 mph (97-129 kph) in the afternoon from the Gila Mountains up through the Rio Grande Valley to neighboring highlands.

A community meeting is being held at Sinagua Middle School at 2 p.m. on April 23 to give updates on fire conditions and evacuations. It will be broadcast on the Coconino County Facebook page.

April 21

Firefighters fanned out across blackened landscape in Arizona’s high country, digging into the ground to put out smoldering tree stumps and roots as helicopters buzzed overhead with buckets of water to drop on a massive blaze.

The work has been tedious and steady — all with the recognition that already strong winds will become stronger Friday and a shift over the weekend could turn the blaze up hillsides or toward homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff.

A brief reprieve Thursday also finally allowed local authorities to enter rural neighborhoods near Flagstaff, Arizona, partially burned Tuesday by whipping flames 100 feet (30 meters) tall and determine that 30 homes were destroyed. Damage also included 24 properties with an unspecified number of destroyed outbuildings and a total of 109 properties were "impacted by the fire," the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday night in a statement.

Authorities previously estimated that 30 structures were burned but had no breakdown of that figure.

The 32-square-mile (83-square kilometer) blaze is one of a half-dozen major wildfires that have raced across Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado over the past week. Forecasters have warned that warm weather, little to no precipitation and spring winds create a dangerous recipe for wildfires.

Still, spirits were lifted Thursday as helicopters for the first time were able to start dropping water on the flames. Aerial attacks also resumed on a pair of fires in New Mexico, where at least one airtanker was able to join the effort— something that’s likely to be impossible on Friday.

Officials with Inciweb stated, "As deputies were evacuating the area, the fire quickly moved into the vicinity, ultimately burning several properties, outbuildings, and residences. Deputies have conducted preliminary evaluations of the area and estimate approximately 109 properties were impacted by the fire, including 30 residences that were burned and 24 properties with outbuildings destroyed. At this point, all the owners of the residential structures have been notified of the loss. The fire moved extremely fast through this area due to the extreme weather conditions and high winds."

Family's home destroyed in the blaze

The wind is still strong here today, but not as bad as it has been in the last couple of days. We've seen air support for the first time being used, and even though the fire fight is still going strong, families are now living with the devastation.

The McKay family is still in shock and disbelief after the Tunnel Fire destroyed their home and all of their memories on Tuesday.

"For it to happen as fast as it did, never in a million years would we expect it to unfold in the way that it did," said Heather McKay.

On the McKay's security camera video, an image showed smoke covering their property from the front door, then just four minutes later, another image showed flames surrounding their home.

"We packed up our little boys and our dog and as I drove down our driveway, I started to see our house go up in flames," she said.

Heather was home alone with her 1-month-old and 3-year-old children. And she had begun to pack up, but all of a sudden, everything changed.

"From going into set mode to getting there was less than 30 minutes and it was burning.. We lost everything.. I had enough time to pack baby formula and baby clothes and three guns and that was it.. that was all and the clothes on my back."

The community has come out in full force to support the McKays. A truck was filled up with donated household items. The McKays are only taking what they need and plan to give the rest to other families who have lost their homes.

"That is how we move forward.. is leaning on the ones we know that love us and are there for us."

On April 24, they will be holding a free yard sale for families affected at Doney Park. They also have a fundraiser set up at https://gofund.me/2b69c3a3.

Behind the fire lines

When you see the damage and eerie landscape left behind, it really shows you what a wildfire can do. They're unpredictable with strong winds and when families are told to get out, there's good reason for that decision.

During our tour, we watched as helicopter drops happened to slow down the spread of the flames. Crews are working on the west side of the fire, making sure the flames don't spread to the San Francisco Peaks. If it had spread that far, we would be in for a much longer fire battle.

The most intense spots of the fire are in remote areas, which has bought crews some time.

"Our initial attack response was good. It was great, but there was a lot of fire everywhere, and we were just focused on the subdivision and trying to get folks out, so we didn't have anybody out on the hill to get up there.. to really get out there the first night. So yesterday morning, first thing, we decided to get some dozers in here and move as much earth as we needed to corral it," said a Preston Mercer, fire management specialist with the Coconino National Forest. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if the fire made it out to that part of the country where it slows itself out because there's just less fuel to burn."

A lot of dry fuel on the ground as well as the fierce winds this week helped the fire grow quickly.

Crews say they're staked out at a number of subdivisions to prevent other homes from burning.

This is Mercer's 28th fire season, so he knows what he's talking about, and he says the Tunnel Fire is burning in the same spot as the Schultz Fire back in 2010.

"The environment is not very friendly. Blowing 70 miles per hour. Rocks were hitting people in the face, and it's very smoky and working directly in the heat. These guys are working incredibly hard. This is their community. They're fully aware of what can happen if fires go through homes."

Mercer says now that the fire is in more of a remote area, that is buying them time. He believes this fire will just eventually run out of dry brush to burn.

Residents living in areas along Highway 89 from Campbell Rd to Antelope Hills have been ordered to evacuate. The fire has grown to 20,511 acres.

Gov. Ducey declares a state of emergency

A State of Emergency has been declared by Gov. Doug Ducey in order to provide more help and resources to impacted communities.

"Our team is on the ground working with first responders to monitor the Tunnel Fire in Coconino County," said Governor Ducey in a statement. "As strong winds fuel fires across Arizona, we are doing everything we can to keep Arizonans safe.

"Our prayers are with the residents affected by the fire and we encourage everyone in the area to follow the guidance of fire officials, stay safe and respond to any evacuation notices," he continued. "We will continue to monitor the situation and deploy additional resources as necessary."

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for Thursday, which means the wind will be conducive to rapid fire growth, said Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service. A strong front is moving into the area Friday.

"This is a good news/bad news scenario," he said. "The good news is temperatures will be cooler, relative humidities will rise. Bad news, the winds will be even stronger on Friday."

Fire officials say it's believed two dozen structures have been lost in the fire. It's not known yet which type of structures those were.

Some residents’ homes were burned to the ground, though Coconino County hasn’t said exactly how many. Officials said Tuesday evening that 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated, and about 250 structures remained threatened.

The cause of the fire is unknown and currently under investigation.

Evacuees save animals, bring them to Ft. Tuthill shelter

Evacuees have been able to bring their animals to places like the Fort Tuthill Animal Shelter, where the Humane Society is helping people. One woman told us the police escorted her onto her property so she could gather her goats, chickens, and other animals. 

She finally made it to the evacuation center by midnight and on April 21, she's trying to remove the pigs.

"It's been really stressful just not knowing what's gonna happen or what to expect. I have four kids, so the kids are really upset because we love our animals, so it has been extremely stressful just trying to get everybody out and get everybody safe," she said.

The woman says she and her husband remain under evacuation orders, and they have not been able to get any information about the condition of their home.

April 20

The Tunnel Fire continued its run Wednesday through dry grass and scattered Ponderosa pines around homes into volcanic cinder fields, where roots underground can combust and send small rocks flying into the air, fire officials said. Persistent spring winds and 50-mph (80-kph) gusts hindered firefighters.

Operations sections Chief Steven Van Kirk said aircraft capable of dropping water and fire retardant on the blaze were not able to fly Wednesday because of strong winds.

About 200 residents filed into an auditorium for a community meeting Wednesday night at a middle school that’s also being used as a shelter. Some lost their homes and were worried about finding temporary housing in a city where rental prices have exploded in recent years.

April 19

Heavy winds kicked up a towering wall of flames outside a northern Arizona tourist town Tuesday, ripping through two-dozen structures and sending residents of more than 700 homes scrambling to flee.

Flames as high as 100 feet (30 meters) raced through an area of scattered homes, dry grass and Ponderosa pine trees on the outskirts of Flagstaff as wind gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph) pushed the blaze over a major highway.

Coconino County officials said during an evening news conference that 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated. About 250 structures remained threatened in the area popular with hikers and off-road vehicle users and where astronauts have trained amid volcanic cinder pits.

The county declared an emergency after the wildfire ballooned from 100 acres (40 hectares) Tuesday morning to over 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) by evening, and ash rained from the sky. The fire was moving northeast away from the more heavily populated areas of Flagstaff, home to Northern Arizona University, and toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, said Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith.

"It’s good in that it’s not headed toward a very populated area, and it’s headed toward less fuel," Smith said. "But depending on the intensity of the fire, fire can still move across cinders."

Authorities won’t be able to determine whether anyone was injured in the wildfire until the flames subside. Firefighters and law enforcement officers went door to door telling people to evacuate but had to pull out to avoid getting boxed in, said Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll.

He said his office got a call about a man who was trapped inside his house, but firefighters couldn’t get to him.

"We don’t know if he made it out or not," Driscoll said.

Various organizations worked to set up shelters for evacuees and animals, including goats and horses.

The scene was all too familiar for residents who recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned in the same area.

Earlier in the day, the wildfire shut down U.S. 89, the main route between Flagstaff and far northern Arizona, and communities on the Navajo Nation. The high winds grounded aircraft that could drop water and fire retardant on the blaze.

Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, shut off power to about 625 customers to keep firefighters safe, a spokeswoman said.

The fire started Sunday afternoon 14 miles (22 kilometers) northeast of Flagstaff. Investigators don’t know yet what caused it and have yet to corral any part of the blaze.

Felicia Fonseca with the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Coconino County Emergency Management Map: https://arcg.is/0Hezrn0

The Associated Press contributed to this report.