Pack Rat, Five Mile Fires 100 Percent Contained

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The Five Mile Fire was 100 percent contained at 376 acres Friday, and officials announced the complete containment of the Pack Rat Fire Monday at 6 p.m. well ahead of previous projections.

"It will be contained at 3,094 acres at 1800 hours tonight," Jim Payne, public affairs officer for the Tonto National Forest, said. "(On Sunday), it was projected to be contained on Sept. 3, but after things went so well with the burnout and mop-up and starting on the rehab, they felt confident they could move it up for containment tonight."

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Preparing for a new assignment, Joseph Seymour (left) and Kevin Rossman replace the window on this Sikorsky S-61 at the Payson Airport Monday.

The burnout took place over the weekend on the fire's troublesome eastern flank.

"It started Saturday and continued Sunday," he said. "It was big on Sunday, and that's when all the smoke showed up. We had dozens of phone calls, especially from Rim Trail saying, 'There's a lot of smoke. I see open flames. It looks like the fire is out of control.' I said, 'No, what you're seeing now is a very successful burnout operation.'"

Both Payne and Type I Incident Commander Larry Humphrey said the original goal was to burn out a smaller area north of Washington Park.

"Because of the type of terrain, the team didn't feel confident that line would hold in the long run," Payne said. "So they felt it was necessary to burn out a larger area to have well established black (burned out)."

While allowing firefighters to get a handle on the Pack Rat Fire, the monsoon storm that soaked the Rim country Wednesday also contributed to the need for a larger burnout. The fire was named when one of the initial firefighters on the scene commented that with the rough terrain, crews will have to pack in a lot of gear to fight it.

"On the Pack Rat, (the rain) did some real good," Humphrey said. "It stopped it from spotting ahead of the main fire on the north. But it hindered us in another spot because it held (the fire) up on a ridge that we couldn't get people into, and that's the reason we had to move (the burnout) back to the East Verde River."

Because the area was in a transition period from wet to dry, the burnout also had to be conducted faster than ideal.

"We were caught between it being too wet to burn and too dry to burn safely," Humphrey said.

Overall the rain was a blessing, especially in turning back the Five Mile Fire.

"If we hadn't gotten that rain, it could've been in Pine Canyon, and we could've been losing houses, and it could've been a whole different story," Humphrey said.

All roads south of the Rim, including the Control Road and Houston Mesa Road, reopened Monday evening at 7 p.m., with the exception of the access roads into Washington Park, Cowan Ranch, Verde Glen and Rim Trail.

"The evacuation of the Washington Park Summer Homes and Washington Park Guest Ranch will also be lifted at 7 p.m. (Monday)," Payne said. "Those folks can return to their homes."

The pre-evacuation alerts for Cowan Ranch, Verde Glen and Rim Trail have also been lifted, but those areas will remain closed to all except homeowners. The 300 Road and other areas on top of the Rim will be opening as soon as possible, Payne said.

Forest and fire officials now turn to the task of rehabilitating the area.

"A long term plan will be built, and crews will be left here to start the process," Payne said. "In fact, there will be a Type 3 team put together from folks assigned to this fire to accomplish the remaining fire lane and work on the burned area rehab."

As his Type 1 team prepared to turn the fire over to the Type 3 team, Humphrey reflected on the difficulty posed by fires on the Rim.

"The (Pack Rat Complex) was the smallest fire we've been on this season, but it wasn't (easy) because of the Rim," he said. "It was in extremely tough country, the toughest country topography-wise in the whole West.

"The other thing that's bad about the Rim," he said, "is that the thermal belt sits in there, so the humidity doesn't increase a lot and the temperature doesn't go down a lot. You can get the fire out above and below the Rim. The trouble is trying to connect the two, and that makes it extremely difficult in terms of putting out the fire and in terms of safety."

Humphrey, who lives and works in Safford, is wrapping up his 29th season of firefighting. He and the 35 or so core members of his team will now scatter to their homes and regular jobs throughout Arizona and New Mexico and wait for the next call.

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