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Heavy winds stymie progress on Pipeline Fire but firefighters have hope for more favorable conditions

The Pipeline Fire burns on the San Francisco Peaks and in Schultz Pass on Mon, June 13, 2022. The wind-driven blaze made a major run to the northeast the day it was reported and has triggered nearly 2,200 evacuations.
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
The Pipeline Fire burns on the San Francisco Peaks and in Schultz Pass on Mon, June 13, 2022. The wind-driven blaze made a major run to the northeast the day it was reported and has triggered nearly 2,200 evacuations.

The Pipeline Fire near Flagstaff was first reported Sunday and exploded in growth because of extremely heavy winds. The blaze made a seven-mile run to the northeast through Schultz Pass in its first day, and it’s bearing down on the Timberline area and other communities, triggering the evacuations of nearly 2,200 homes.

It’s the second major wildfire in recent months to threaten the area. The Pipeline Fire has now grown to at least 5,000 acres and has spread onto the San Francisco Peaks burning the east faces of Fremont and Doyle peaks.

Aaron Graeser is the type 3 incident commander on the Pipeline Fire and spoke with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius Monday evening at a media briefing.

Type 3 Incident Commander on the Pipeline Fire Aaron Graeser gives a media briefing on Mon, June 13, 2022 in Flagstaff.
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Type 3 Incident Commander on the Pipeline Fire Aaron Graeser gives a media briefing on Mon, June 13, 2022 in Flagstaff.

Ryan Heinsius: Obviously we know this has been an extremely active fire—uncontrollable because of these winds. But maybe you can characterize what you’re seeing out there on the ground as far as fire activity.

Aaron Graeser: Sure, yeah, rapidly moving fire, wind-driven fire. The fuels are extremely dry out there. We’re in a long-term drought. The lack of late-season moisture this winter has all contributed to the fuels being in a condition that they’re very receptive. And it’s the heart of fire season, the warmest, driest for northern Arizona. So, all those conditions have kind of combined to there being fairly rapid growth of the fire and wind driven. Where the wind blows is where the fire’s going to go.

RH: And you’ve said aviation resources could come into play to give an assist. What generally is the game plan for the next couple of days?

AG: So again, it’s going to depend on the flying conditions. For aviation resources specifically we’re going to continue to have the temporary flight restriction over the area. I would encourage any personal drone owners out there to please stay out of the fire area. If you are flying your drones, we cannot operate aircraft. It’s a safety issue for our flight crews. We’ll be looking at heavy, both aircraft and ground presence as those air assets become available and we can assign to the fire.

RH: Clearly there are—you said about 600 personnel now on the fire. What are some glimmers of hope that you’re seeing out there?

AG: Sure. Some of the glimmers of hope are that we’re looking at moderating weather conditions, so really the wind dying in the next couple days. We’re the number one priority in the nation as far as getting firefighting resources. And so, we’re really able to get a lot of the needed equipment, crews, aircraft that we need that when the time is right to be able to be successful on this fire.

RH: So maybe the converse of that, tell me what you are most nervous about, what you’re seeing out there that might scare you.

AG: You know, I really feel for this community. I feel for the impact this community has had, the second fire in two months. That weighs heavily on all our minds. We’re here to serve a public, we’re here to try to do the best job we can. And when we have less than successful outcomes it weighs heavy on our hearts. From a fire behavior standpoint, until it rains the fuels aren’t going to get any wetter. We’re going to continue to have some of the same conditions. So, it’s concerning. However, we have the right people at the right place at the right time with the right skill set to be able to be successful.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered 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 Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.