U.S. Forest Service crews, which have been stretched thin by more than two dozen fires in the Rim country, are struggling to contain the Peak Fire burning unchecked in thick chaparral and conifer eight miles south of Globe between Pinal and Signal peaks.
At press time, Tonto National Forest officials had been able to muster the services of about 465 firefighters including a Hot Shot crew from Pleasant Valley and a manned water tender from Diamond-Star Fire Department to try and contain the fire that has charred 1,300 acres. Crews have it 10-percent contained with no estimate of when it will be fully contained, Tonto National Forest Public Information Officer Emily Garber said.
Rains that fell Thursday evening were beneficial to the fire fight, but the downpour wasn't enough to extinguish it, Garber said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the lightning caused fire which was reported at 8:30 p.m. Sunday made a run up Pinal Peak and threatened several antenna sites and cabins, Garber said.
About 11 a.m. Wednesday, antenna site users reported power outages and were forced to switch to generators and batteries for backup power. Commercial power was restored at 4 p.m., Garber said.
The outage affected communications to emergency service units in Gila County, but there was no disruption to 9-1-1 services, Gila County Detective Sgt. Tom Rasmussen said.
Two of the data-transmitting towers on the peaks are important to air traffic control at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, Albuquerque and Palmdale, Calif., FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said. "They serve as the Albuquerque en-route center."
The radio transmitters were without commercial power for five hours Wednesday before an alternate power source, which can maintain power for about three days, kicked in.
If the transmitters which allow voice communications between aircraft and controllers were to go out, the FAA could reroute communications, but it could slow air traffic throughout the Southwest, Herwig said.
Due to the fire danger, Forest Service officials were at first reluctant to allow FAA inspectors to enter the area to check on the condition of the transmitters. However, Thursday afternoon, the FAA received the OK to make the checks as long as the inspectors were accompanied by firefighters. Those inspections will be made today (Friday), Herwig said.
Also on the peaks are Department of Public Safety, Salt River Project and private radio station transmitters.
Arizona Public Service has joined forces with the Forest Service to try to keep the power flowing to all the transmitters, Garber said. "They've been working very closely with us ... but they have to be taken up there it's still quite risky."
Because there are only two access roads into the area and both are rough, winding roads, Tonto National Forest Supervisor Thomas Klabunde issued a special order to close both FR 651 and 112.
Klabunde did so to protect the firefighters, Garber said. "Those are the major escape routes."
Early in the week, firefighting efforts were hampered by a lack of air support needed to drop retardant.
"It's a challenge to get the helicopters and air tankers ... we are competing for resources with other fires," Garber said.
The Peaks Fire is among four dozen major fires covering more than 700,000 acres in 10 Western states that are straining firefighting resources.
By Thursday, the Forest Service was able to get some of the air support it needed in the form of two helicopters and three air tankers.
In addition to making water drops from Roosevelt Lake, the helicopters are being used to ferry crews into the rugged terrain.
Desk jockeys turn firefighters
Fire crews crisscrossed the Tonto National Forest last week trying to contain the 25-lightning caused fires that flared up, including the Mogollon Fire on the Rim that was contained this week at 190 acres.
Most are small less than an acre but because there are so many, local crews are stretched thin, Payson Ranger District Fire Management Officer Bob Ortlund said.
In the Coconino National Forest, employees at the Flagstaff office who usually man nothing more than a computer, are being asked to join the firefighting effort.
"We've got a lot of empty desks around here," Coconino Public Affairs Officer Karen Mavis-Clark said. "We've called in everyone. We have mothers who have to find child care because they could be gone for extended times."
Coconino fire crews are still mopping up both the Pipe Fire west of Flagstaff and the Power Fire east of Flagstaff.
The Pipe Fire burned 600 acres and the Power charred 1,500 acres.
In an effort to help with the firefighting, several municipal departments, including Payson and Diamond-Star, are allowing their crews to be called in as part of an agreement with the Arizona State Land Department. Other departments participating in the agreement include Kingman, Apache Junction, Chandler, Rural Metro Scottsdale, Yuma and others.
According to Payson Fire Chief John Ross, his department recently stepped up its involvement in the program.
A type 6 brush truck which includes a two-man crew and a four-wheel drive vehicle equipped with a 200-gallon water tank has been dispatched to the 25-acre Fisherman Fire currently burning in Colcord Canyon.
Only two weeks ago, a similar Payson Fire Department team was sent to Flagstaff where it joined the Power and Pipe fire fights.
The presence of that team and others from around the state including one from the state prison at Winslow contained the fire before it could burn more of the dense pine forest, Mavis-Clark said.
Payson has 22 on-call and full-duty firefighters who have the training to be used in wildfire situations, Ross said.
Due to monsoon storms that have produced little moisture, Coconino and Kaibab National Forest will reinstitute campfire and chain saw restrictions at 8 a.m. today (Friday).