FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — I was on my way back from Cottonwood to Sedona, two cities in northern Arizona, when I saw the smoke from the Flagstaff wildfire 40 miles north, billowing into the sky over the Sedona mountains. It looked almost like a nuclear mushroom cloud.
Turning on the news I learned the fire, named the Shultz Fire, had burned 8,000 acres of forest and was threatening nearby towns.
My friend and I grabbed a camera and took off for Flagstaff up S.R. 89A, a winding shortcut through Oak Creek Canyon that would take us into the city.
About 10 miles out of town, we smelled the smoke and the unmistakable stench of pine burning. Our eyes started to sting — and we were still at least 10 miles away.
Approaching Flagstaff, we saw the fire had jumped over Mount Eden and was burning on the city’s side of Shultz Pass. Not a good sign.
Once in Flagstaff we could see the fire was approximately five miles north of the city. The wind had shifted and the smoke was blowing to the east.
Even though the fire was so close, locals were going about their business, seemingly unconcerned over the fire’s proximity.
“I’m not worried about the fire spreading to Flagstaff,” Andre Luciano said. “There are a lot of firefighters out there working to stop the blaze. What concerns me is the damage the fire is doing to our favorite forests and recreational areas. That’s sad. We feel helpless watching it burn.”
Andrea Klien, a student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, said she wanted to run out of the city as soon as she saw the smoke cloud coming over the mountain tops. She was on the job as a waitress at Flagstaff’s Roma Pizza when we spoke to her.
“I thought I was going to die out here when I saw the smoke,” she said. “I didn’t know what was happening. Nobody knew. We finally found out later from the news the fire was burning on the other side of Shultz Pass. It looks like it’s only five miles away. We still don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very scary.”
I had to agree. So, I put in a call to the Flagstaff Fire Information Center.
“There is no immediate danger to the area,” public information officer Erin Phelps said. “Right now we are looking to get people who were evacuated back home. We are lucky no homes were damaged.”
She said the real heartbreak of the fire is the damage done to the area’s forest lands.
“It’s a bummer to watch the fires eat up our recreational areas,” she said. “We have 800 people out there, hot-shot teams, crews and helicopters. We think we are going to be OK.”
The wind shifted and again we could smell the fire, this time much stronger. It stung your eyes and left an acrid taste in your mouth.
One could imagine what it must be like for those on the ground fighting the blaze.
We wanted to get closer, but the smell of the smoke was too much, so we turned around and headed back to Sedona, grateful to breathe fresh air.