Ponderosa Fire Stopped At 140 Acres

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With the help of nearby fire crews, a fire that destroyed 140 acres Wednesday near the Ponderosa Campground was reported and contained within 32 hours.

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Smoke billows into the air Wednesday from the Ponderosa Fire that caused the evacuation of the Thompson Draw area. Officials are currently investigating the cause of the fire, but believe it was started by humans.

All of Arizona's large airtankers responded to the fire. Four airtankers were military aircraft from Williams Gateway Airport and two were civilian tankers. The airtankers on the scene were six of nine active tankers in the nation.

The Ponderosa Fire was reported at 11:10 a.m. by the Diamond Point Lookout. It broke out near the Ponderosa Campground, about 12 miles east of Payson, and spread quickly toward the 85 cabins of the Thompson Draw community.

The fire burned seven APS poles to the ground and melted some Qwest communication lines, affecting the power and telephone use of 2,000 nearby residents.

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John Posteraro and his crew from Cucina Paradiso provided more than 200 meals to Ponderosa Fire evacuees.

"I could see flames 20 to 30 feet in the air," said Marie Hall, 75, a Phoenix resident who was evacuated from Thompson Draw. "There were guys with axes everywhere."

Three Hotshot crews, four helicopters, six airtankers and numerous Gila County Sheriff officers descended upon the area. Crews and equipment from the Willow Fire, 15 miles away, arrived on the scene to fight the fire.

Hall said she could see the airtankers dropping red fire retardant on the trees.

"I didn't think much of it until [the retardant] dropped on me," she said.

The sheriff's department came in and told them to get out immediately. Hall asked how much time she and husband Glenn had.

"Now," the deputy said.

The Halls stumbled around in their dark cabin, grabbed their cat and got out. Still, they were some of the last to leave.

Casa Grande residents Ione Huey, 72, and Robert Huey, 73, had time to gather medicine, important papers and some of Robert's cross-stitching.

"We had no chance to grab any clothes," Ione said. "We thought if we get out of here with our lives, that's important."

Highway 260 was closed from Heber to Star Valley at about noon, and 250 residents of the area were safely evacuated.

About 20 of them arrived at the Rim Country Middle School gym, where the American Red Cross had set up a shelter for evacuees. The Red Cross provided fruit, water and snacks and was prepared to house several evacuees overnight.

The evacuees were joined by members of the Tonto Rim Baptist Camp who had voluntarily evacuated from the Ponderosa Fire area. About 130 children and 25 camp counselors stayed at a Payson Nazarene church while crews worked on the fire, according to Red Cross Communications Manager Jake Saylor.

Cucina Paradiso, an Italian restaurant in Payson, provided more than 200 meals of pizza, baked ziti, salad and bread to the evacuees.

"These are people in our community. They're family. We're one big family here," said John Posteraro, front of house manager at Cucina Paradiso. "When we have to step up to the plate, we step up to the plate."

Only a few evacuees ended up staying overnight, as the fire was contained early Wednesday evening. Highway 260 was opened at about 6 p.m. Evacuees were allowed back to their homes at about 7 p.m.

By Thursday morning, five crews and several fire engines worked to mop up the Ponderosa Fire, looking for hot spots.

"One of the big advantages we had was that there were so many crews available, and that certainly did help," said Emily Garber, Fire Information Officer for Tonto National Forest.

Garber said fire officials are currently investigating the cause of the fire. It was probably human-caused, she said.

Power was restored to the area by 5:30 a.m. Thursday.

The Red Cross shelter will remain open until no other evacuations are expected, Saylor said.

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