Too Close For Comfort

Pack Rat blaze consumes 1,210 acres beneath Rim


The Pack Rat Fire burst through containment lines Saturday night, prompting a precautionary evacuation alert for the communities of Washington Park, Rim Trail, Verde Glen and Cowan Ranch.

"On Saturday night, the fire spotted over the line in the northeast corner because of increased winds and low relative humidity," Jim Payne, public affairs officer for the Tonto National Forest, said. "Then it made a run across the 300 Road the Rim Road, and actually moved about 1/2 mile north of the Rim Road."

According to one report, an errant log was responsible for the fire's latest outburst.

"When you have a fire and things are going on, a lot of times debris is breaking loose and rolling away," Gary Roberts, district fire prevention officer for the Payson Ranger District, said. "There was a log that rolled out and started a fire and that made things take off and it made a run to the top of the ridge."

After being 75 percent contained at 210 acres Saturday, the fire grew dramatically to 1,210 acres by Tuesday morning. Firefighters now estimate containment at just 25 percent.

The Humphries Team, a Type 1 Southwest Area Incident Command Team, took over command of the fire at 6 p.m. Monday.

Winds can be erratic on the Rim and gusts have been reaching 25 miles per hour, so the evacuation alerts are a precaution firefighters felt was justified.

According to Art Wirtz, public information officer for the Tonto National Forest, all residents of Washington Park have voluntarily evacuated that community. The fire is about three-quarters of a mile from Washington Park, but the other communities are not immediately threatened.

"The concern is on the east and south sides of the fire," Payne said. "It's been backing down those slopes towards the Highline Trail ... and it's been laterally moving in and out of those canyons along the rim."

Officials have pushed estimated containment back to Sept. 7, Payne said.

"Before that happens we are predicting the fire could go to 2,500 acres," he said.

Two major factors have slowed efforts to control the fire from the beginning.

"We're just in a drying trend and it makes things a lot more explosive, and then there's the steepness of the terrain," Roberts said.

"The fire is 11 days old, but it didn't take off until (Sunday). That's because a week ago, we were at 40 percent relative humidity. If we had a normal monsoon flow, we wouldn't have a problem."

Another issue has been the competition for firefighting resources.

"There have been so many fires this season, but right now it's Oregon," Roberts said. "There is just so much going on up there."

Both Roberts and Payne expect things to get worse before they get better.

"This fire's going to get bigger," Payne said. "It's potential to move up and down those canyons really depends a lot on the weather later this week and how many firefighters we can have work those canyons without putting them in harm's way."

The Payson Fire Department, while not actively involved in the Pack Rat Fire, has been busy on other fronts.

"We had a crew helping with the National Fire, which is now 100 percent contained," Jack Babb, Payson fire marshal, said.

The National Fire, located about eight miles east of the Pack Rat Fire below Myrtle Point, reached 53 acres at its peak.

If an evacuation of some outlying communities becomes a reality, Babb said the town will be ready.

"Since the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, we've been prepared to receive additional evacuees," Babb said. "Payson is one of the places they'd be welcomed."

Other groups and organizations are making preliminary plans as well.

"The Payson Humane Society, for example, is taking a pro-active approach," Babb said. "They're asking what they can expect."

At this point, Payson residents shouldn't be overly concerned about the fire reaching town.

"Payson is out of immediate danger," Babb said. "But there's always a possibility, however remote."

Roberts agreed.

"We don't really think at this time we're going to have a problem with it moving south, and we don't think we're going to have a problem holding it on the south," he said.

The Pack Rat Fire is eight miles east of Pine near Kehl Springs Campground on the Mogollon Rim. It was started by lightning Aug. 15 and is burning ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forest on the border of the Coconino and Tonto national forests.

The vicinity of the Pack Rat Fire along the Rim is closed to public entry.

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