TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — A wildfire forced residents in several neighborhoods to flee on the northern edge of Tucson Thursday after firefighters announced they would start a “back burn” to block the lightning-spawned Bighorn Fire from reaching the upscale homes.
“If you are in this area, EVACUATE NOW,” the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement shortly after 10 a.m. “Move south away from the Catalina Mountains. Do not delay leaving the area.”
Sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door telling residents to leave and set up a cooling center for evacuees at a high school. The evacuation follows a warning Wednesday night that residents in a wider swath of the city – hundreds of homes – should be ready to leave on short notice.
Though the fire was actively burning Thursday, fueled by high winds and low humidity, firefighters do not expect the flames to reach homes, said fire information officer Cindy Wolfe.
“We’ve been very lucky with this one,” Wolfe said. “Hopefully they’re going to be able to get the structure protection in there on this one, the proper engines. I don’t think you’re going to see too much of an issue.”
The fire is burning in tall grass and pinon juniper and oak between 4,500-6,000 feet elevation, Wolfe said.
Just over 50 homes are in the evacuation zone, which spans five upscale neighborhoods flanking the Coronado National Forest, where the fire has been burning since Friday.
By Thursday afternoon, the fire was 10% contained and had burned through 4,769 acres with just under 400 firefighters working to contain it, according to the Arizona Emergency Information Network website.
The area deemed in “significant danger” by the Sheriff’s Department was expanded Thursday to include hundreds more homes, also along the urban-wildland interface on the city’s northern edge. The Sheriff’s Department urged residents in that zone to consider leaving.
Smoke from the fire blanketed the city Wednesday, and flames were visible from most of the city Wednesday night. A tower of thick grey smoke rose above Coronado National Forest, where numerous hiking trails were closed. Catalina State Park, about 15 miles north of downtown Tucson, was also closed.
County officials issued a series of air quality advisories starting Monday in response to the smoke, urging older residents, children, and those with heart or lung disease to limit activity and stay indoors with windows closed.
With a high temperature of 104 degrees and single-digit humidity expected Friday and Saturday, the biggest concern for firefighters is weather, Wolfe said.
“The weather is critical, because of the wind and the temperatures. That’re really driving this fire right now,” she said.