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Residents scrutinize timeline of Tunnel Fire initial response

Tunnel Fire 4/19/22
Brady Smith/USFS
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The Tunnel Fire exploded in growth on Tue, April 19, 2022 as heavy winds funneled it to the northeast. It's burned at least two dozen homes and forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 people.

Firefighters worked over two consecutive days to suppress the Tunnel Fire before it exploded in size and destroyed 30 homes. Community members are now scrutinizing the timeline of the early response to what initially was a relatively small wildfire.

The Tunnel Fire was initially called in at 4:22 p.m. on Easter Sunday. A crew made up of four engines responded about 15 minutes later and worked to fully suppress it, listed the fire as contained at about 8:30 p.m.

Officials say firefighters left for the night but followed standard procedure and returned Monday morning to work on the fire for most of the day. The crew again returned to the station Monday night and came back Tuesday morning to find that the fire had grown by about three acres.

"The fire was called contained because there was no smoke or visible flame Sunday or Monday after they finished working. Then Tuesday they went out there were working the fire and the winds came up and they could not control it," said Coconino National Forest Flagstaff District Ranger Matt McGrath during a community meeting last weekend.

Tuesday’s response initially involved three U.S. Forest Service engines, one Summit Fire Department engine, two hotshot crews, a dozer and a water tender who battled the fire direct. Powerful winds gusts, however, quickly spread the fire to the north and northeast toward the Timberline and Fernwood neighborhoods where it eventually burned 30 homes.

Residents are questioning why the fire was left unattended for two nights.

"Why weren’t they on that fire? The wind was blowing very, very hard. They should have been out there at all times trying to get that fire under control," said one Timberline resident during the community meeting.

An outside agency is investigating the response and cause of the fire, which hasn’t yet been determined. There was no lightning the day it started.

The fire originated in an area off Schultz Pass Road where campfires are permanently banned.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.