Members of the Flagstaff PD go door-to-door in Valley Crest Estates to alert residents of a pre-evacuation notice due to the Museum Fire.
Tom Tingle, The Republic |

FLAGSTAFF — The looming presence of the Museum Fire was impossible to ignore.

The gray smoke overtook the sky, shadowing the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden. Officials estimated the 1,800-acre fire was about one mile north of city limits Monday.

Nearly a dozen different neighborhoods remained in a state of suspended motion Monday while they waited in the “set” stage. People packed their cars with clothes, toiletries, pet food, photo albums and electronics just in case they received the alert letting them know they had to go. 

Some, like Ronald Thomas, decided to leave immediately after receiving the pre-evacuation notice. Thomas and his family planned to stay at a nearby hotel. 

He packed the trunk of his car parked outside of his home in Christmas Tree Estates on the east side of Flagstaff full of his family’s suitcases and hard drives. His decision to store all his important documents and photographs digitally paid off, he said. 

“Fortunately, if the place burns down, I’m actually ready,” he said.

He paused momentarily to glance up at a large air-tanker swooping down the ridge on Mount Elden, presumably to dump another bath of flame retardant on the fire just on the other side. 

“We’re just watching and waiting now,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”

Juanita Fike packed up her car with snacks, water, her laptop and all her important papers. She plans to stay in her home of 30 years until she receives the official notice that she has to evacuate. Her next-door neighbor, who moved in shortly after she did, helped her take photos of her belongings for insurance purposes. 

“I would hate to lose my home, but God gave me this one and I’m sure he will supply me something else if something happens to this one,” Fike said. 

The burn scar of the 1977 Radio Fire on Mount Elden was still visible in the distance. Neither Fike or Thomas was in Flagstaff then, but it served as a visible reminder of how close the fire had come. 

Evacuations underway in city’s northern areas

It’s still not clear what started the Museum Fire on Sunday, but numerous locals speculated it was human-caused. Fire crews relied heavily on aerial attacks to keep the fire east and south of Schultz Road (also known as Forest Road 420), west of Highway 89 and north of Pipeline Road.

Residents of Valley Crest Estates gathered on sidewalks outside their homes to watch  firefighters on a helicopter dip into the city reservoir to repeatedly refill a large bucket suspended by a cable.  

Others quickly loaded their cars up as Flagstaff Police Detective Casey Rucker and other officers knocked on each door to let them know they needed to be ready to leave if necessary. 

SUBSCRIBER EXCLUSIVE: Museum Fire is the fire Flagstaff has feared for years

Rucker couldn’t answer many of the questions about how close the fire was or how concerned they should be. He just told them they needed to be ready to go if the time came. He placed a small door hanger on the door handle of those who didn’t answer and wrote down the house number so someone could try again later.

Paul Greenwood was one of the people watching from the sidewalk. He’s never had to evacuate in the 21 years he has lived in the neighborhood. The last time a fire was this close was the Schultz Fire in 2010. 

“It still doesn’t feel that imminent,” he said. 

Barely an hour later, homes only a street or two away in the densely wooded neighborhoods east of Mount Elden Lookout Road was evacuated. 

Officials said the evacuation was ordered just to support burnout operations to keep the fire from coming into these neighborhoods.

Residents moved quickly to load up their final items before leaving their homes behind.

Small pieces of ash floated through the air. 

Officials: Fire burning in wrong place at wrong time

The last time forests near Flagstaff burned like this was in 2010 during the Schultz Fire, which charred more than 15,000 acres and cost the region $147 million. This time, it’s burning on the same mountain, just southwest of the 2010 fire, and it could pose similar risks to residents once it’s put out.

Forest officials say the fire is burning in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Museum Fire is burning near the area where forest officials have worked to thin the forest but hadn’t completed the job.

George Jozens, a Coconino National Forest spokesman, said crews have been working on thinning that area to avoid exactly what’s happening now. Jozens said this fire “puts icing on the cake” and shows them that this area badly needs the treatment they had started and haven’t finished.


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These thinnedareas will help make it less likely for the fire to rise and spread through the air. But some of the debris that has come off the trees during thinning hasn’t been removed yet from the forest floor. That is adding fuel to the fire, although not as much as nearby untreated areas.

“As we’re trying to thin it out, it decides to catch fire,” Jozens said. “It’s been almost a day and a half since it caught fire and we’re (only about) a thousand acres so far, so it could have been a lot worse.”

The Shultz Fire caused dramatic, costly flooding to neighborhoods in the shadow of the burn scar — and the rain season that caused those floods is coming up this week. 

Even if the crews manage to keep the fire from spreading, problems could emerge. 

“A 1,000-acre fire is probably going to cause some flooding in the future, but we don’t know how much yet until our team gets in there after the fire is out,” Jozens said.

Aggressive firefighting approach

A Type-1 Incident Management Team took over operations Monday evening. Type-1 teams are the most experienced and are trained to handle fast-moving and complex fires. An updated acreage wasn’t immediately available Monday evening. 

Flagstaff has been notably dry during the first weeks of the monsoon season, with the area receiving less than a quarter-inch of rain.

Benjamin Peterson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Flagstaff said the wind would remain relatively mild Tuesday morning as showers and thunderstorms move into the area. 


The Museum Fire burns north of Flagstaff on July 21, 2019. The fire, was reported around 11 a.m. Sunday by fire lookouts and calls from the public.
Tom Tingle, The Republic |

Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans and Lena Fowler, the Coconino Board of Supervisors chair, declared a state of emergency in their areas, which they hope will signal Gov. Doug Ducey to provide additional emergency state funding for fighting the fire. 

“We are a strong community; we are resilient; we will walk through this difficult time together,” Evans wrote in a Facebook post. 

Reach public safety reporter Bree Burkitt at [email protected] or at 602-444-8515. Follow her on Twitter at @breeburkitt.

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