Pack Rat Fire Now 80-Percent Contained

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Firefighters got a break Wednesday evening when an unexpected monsoon storm dumped significant precipitation on both the Pack Rat and Five Mile fires.

The amount of precipitation that fell on the Pack Rat Fire varied from 1/3 to 1 inch, according to Bobby Ortlund, fire management officer for the Tonto National Forest.

"It was nice," Ortlund said. "It wasn't predicted. It actually bought us a lot. It bought us some time."

The Five Mile Fire was ignited Wednesday afternoon about 2 p.m. north of Strawberry along Highway 87. While fire officials are not sure how it started, they believe it was human caused.

The Pack Rat Fire, started by lightning Aug. 15, is located eight miles east of Pine near Kehl Springs Campground on the Mogollon Rim. As of Thursday evening, it had consumed 2,100 acres and was 80 percent contained.

The Humphrey Team, a Type 1 Southwest Area Incident Command Team that took command of the Pack Rat Fire Monday evening, was immediately assigned to the Five Mile Fire as well, which by Friday morning was considered 80-percent contained at 400 acres.

While most lines around the Pack Rat Fire appear to be holding, the eastern flank remains a major trouble spot.

"The eastern side has a piece we don't have any line on and we're looking at that today (Thursday), Ortlund said. "The problem is it's very steep in there."

Dozer lines are now in place around Washington Park and along a row of threatened power lines northeast of that community in the East Verde River Valley. At one point the fire crept to within 1/4-mile of Washington Park, prompting the voluntary evacuation of that community.

Officials are increasingly confident that the homes in Washington Park will be saved.

"With the rain, Washington Park is 90 percent safe," Brenda Straw, customer service representative for the Payson Ranger District, said.

Residents of the communities placed on alert to evacuate including Rim Trail, Verde Glen and Cowan Ranch as well as Washington Park were relieved. Patrick McIlhenney, who lives in Rim Trail, said he witnessed the answer to a lot of prayers.

"One minute, we were watching the latest flare-up on the ridge closest to us," he said. "The winds were driving those flames and it was an amazing sight. Within minutes, divine providence interceded and the heaviest, hardest, toad-drowning gully washer hit Rim Trail and the surrounding area. In 20 minutes, we went from having this blaze blowing out of control to almost an inch of rain in the rain gauge. The heart of this fire ... had succumbed."

While still cautious, Ortlund is hopeful the worst is over.

"Thanks to the rain, (the eastern flank) has settled down," he said. "There's still the potential for stuff to fall out (of the fire), but if it does it's not going anywhere. Even if we don't get any more rain, it's going to be wet enough for the next several days."

A drying trend is expected to take hold over the weekend, but Ortlund says there could be more rain some time next week.

"Looking farther out, there's a tropical storm off the Baja," he said. "But it's hard to predict what that's going to do."

Regardless of the weather, full containment of the Pack Rat Fire is not expected for several days.

"A lot of people got the impression that now we got a big rain, that put the fire out," Art Wirtz, public information officer for the Tonto National Forest, said. "No it didn't. Not on these fires. Even with heavy rains, these big logs you're not going to get those things saturated. We're going to be working on this for another good four or five days."

About 375 firefighters are now battling the Pack Rat Fire, using five helicopters, two air tankers, 20 engines, three dozers, and 16 water tenders.

Road closures include 11 miles of Forest Road 300 (the Rim Road) between the junctions of Highway 87 and Forest Road 95, FS64 (the Control Road) from Highway 87 to FS195, Highway 199 (Houston Mesa Road) at Shoofly Indian Ruins, and additional Forest Service roads leading to the Rim Road from the North.

The Pine-Strawberry Fire District has been declared a special hazard area due to extreme fire danger. Restrictions are in place banning outdoor smoking, fires, discharging of firearms, and the operation of internal combustion engine-driven power equipment.

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