Firefighters, Rain Douse Webber Fire

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Just five days after it was discovered, the Webber Fire is history.

Several days of successful burnouts and a big assist from a steady rain allowed fire officials to pronounce the fire's expiration early Friday.

"This morning, the incident commander said, ‘It's 100-percent contained,'" Joe Luttman, Forest Service fire information officer, said. "Stick a fork in it -- she's done!"

The fire, which began Sunday evening but wasn't discovered until Monday morning, topped out at 4,311 acres. Firefighters had hoped to contain the blaze this weekend, but the rain came late enough to allow a final successful day of burnouts on Thursday.

"Because it didn't rain yesterday we got a really good, clean burn all the way around the fire," Luttman said. "So when the rain came last night, it was just like, hallelujah!"

Luttman, who estimated rainfall totaled almost an inch on top of the Rim, said fire personnel were jubilant.

While the strategy of fighting fire with fire created dramatic columns of smoke for several days this week, it allowed firefighters to effectively corral the fire and keep it from destroying a single structure.

Over the past few days, fire crews bulldozed a line around the entire perimeter of the fire. Then two small tankers and two helicopters dropped 7,000 small containers similar to ping-pong balls filled with flammable liquids.

A chemical reaction between potassium permanganate and glycol causes the balls to ignite. As they hit the ground, they ignited the grasses, needles and other forest materials. The resulting backfires burned out the areas between the fire and the line around it, a tactic that prevented the fire from running its own course.

"We're eliminating the fuel in front of the fire," Luttman said. "In other words, we really are fighting fire with fire."

Thursday, crews completed the final area that needed to be burned out -- a three-mile-wide expanse south of the fire.

"Our goal is to clean up the brush and other dry forest materials within the fire perimeter," Joe Reinarz, deputy incident commander, said. "By burning off this material now, we hope to prevent re-ignition or other fire starts in the area."

While resources were initially scarce, enough manpower was eventually mobilized to wage the successful counter offensive. As of Thursday, when the first and only Hot Shot crew arrived, more than 300 firefighters and support personnel were on the scene.

"Getting a large response out here early on has been key," Luttman said. "Everything has gone really well considering how early (in the fire season) this was and the lack of resources."

The Payson Fire Department and other local fire departments donated manpower and equipment to the effort.

"We've got one brush truck and three or four firefighters out there, and then we have our tender over at the airport supporting the air operations," Payson Fire Marshal Mike Winters said. "Whatever they need out of us, we're willing to do to help out."

The fire, named because it started near Webber Creek, was located about 2.5 miles east of Pine and 11 miles north of Payson. Driven by high winds out of the south and aided by warm temperatures, it spread quickly toward the Mogollon Rim. Firefighters were hampered by the remote location of the fire in extremely rugged terrain.

"This is some of the most rugged terrain in the state of Arizona, so the fact that we have not had a single injury is excellent," Luttman said.

While the exact cause of the fire is still under investigation, officials said that natural causes have been eliminated.

"The investigators reported to us that it was not a prescribed fire, and it was not lightning," Luttman said. "It was human-caused."

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano expressed her concern Thursday.

"Obviously this is an early start to the fire season," Napolitano said. "This is something we have been predicting this winter, particularly given the early start of the heat and the lack of substantial rain and snow."

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