Monsoon storms help slow Arizona's Museum Fire, but raise flood concerns

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez meeting with Navajo Nation officials regarding risks related to the Museum Fire at the Office of the President and Vice President in Window Rock, Arizona. (Navajo Nation photo)

Heavy rainfall is expected and burned areas are ripe for flash floods and heavy flows of ash, mud and debris

Marcella Baietto and Dylan Simard
Cronkite News

FLAGSTAFF – A couple dozen families on Elden Lookout Road were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday afternoon, but residents of other neighborhoods threatened by the Museum Fire remain on alert to leave at a moment’s notice.

Efforts to battle the nearly 1,900-acre blaze were aided by monsoon storms Tuesday, helping crews reach 10 percent containment. More rain is expected this week.

The Museum Fire incident management team has been relying heavily on airborne fire suppression, as the fire is burning through extremely steep terrain that’s difficult to access.

Although the rain has done much to damper the fire, there is a danger of flooding because the loss of vegetation leaves burned areas ripe for flash floods and heavy flows of ash, mud and debris. 

The Navajo Nation, in a news release, warned tribal citizens about related risks.

“Many of our Navajo people reside in and near the city of Flagstaff, so it’s important that we be proactive in assessing any potential health and safety risks associated with the Museum Fire. The U.S. Weather Service anticipates heavy rainfall that may add to the risk of flooding,” stated President Jonathan Nez. 

Navajo Nation Department of Health Executive Director Dr. Jill Jim, also cautioned those with breathing and respiratory issues to remain indoors to minimize exposure to smoke from the fire and to check on those who are elderly and disabled. She added that Community Health Representatives are on standby to offer assistance for elderly and disabled if needed.

Fire analyst Rob Beery told a packed high school auditorium Tuesday night the fire won’t grow much bigger, thanks to rain in the forecast. But he said there’s no history of fire in the burn area, meaning there’s “really heavy fuel in there.”

“There’s a lot of high intensity fire on this fire,” he said. “Obviously, you folks who saw it when it took off. So that high intensity fire tends to make it more prone to flooding.”

About 600 people living in four neighborhoods in the path of possible flooding are filling sandbags to prepare. But many people evacuated because of the Museum Fire feel helpless.

“We’re in a quandary because we’re worried about the flooding,” Ed Wolf said. “And if we can’t get in there to sandbag, what can we do?”

Many people have been reminded of the Schultz Fire and its subsequent flooding nine years ago that killed one person and destroyed several homes.

“After a fire, flooding is always a concern,” said Joel Barnett, a spokesperson with Southwest Area Incident Management Team 2. “This team has been brought in to manage the fire itself.”

Management Team 2 is staying in Fort Tuthill, south of Flagstaff, where fire officials and emergency personnel have set up a command center. Nearly 120 people eat, sleep and live in the camp while battling the Museum Fire.

Incident technology specialist Chris Dawson has been camping in his car at Fort Tuthill, helping with the fire efforts for the past four days.

“It (fire camp) is a lot like home. It’s our extended family, but it’s pretty easy,” Dawson said. “We wake up. We get breakfast, lunch and dinner served for us, but you’re working 16 hours a day.”

Fire officials say they don’t know when their operations will wrap up.

The cause of the Museum Fire remains unknown as of Wednesday afternoon. Federal investigators arrived earlier in the week but have not been able to access the site due to hazardous conditions.

Several communities remain on pre-evacuation status, including Forest Hills, Valley Crest, Lockett Ranch, north and west of U.S. 89 and Silver Saddle, Hutcheson Acres, McCann Estates, Little Elden Springs, Black Bill Park, Wupatki Trails, Pine Mountain Estates, west of U.S. 89 from Railhead north to Townsend-Winona, including the KOA Campground, and Christmas Tree Estates.

CN-LOGO

Indian Country Today contributed to this storyLaurel Morales of KJZZ contributed to this story.

For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.

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