The first major forest fire of the season struck close to home for Rim country residents -- a blaze that grew to 550 acres this morning and is less than a mile north of Camp Geronimo.
The Webber Fire, named because it started near Webber Creek, is located about 3.5 miles east of Pine and 11 miles north of Payson. U.S. Forest Service officials have drawn a containment boundary around the fire that would cap it at about 6,000 acres, according to Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Ed Armenta.
"These are the projected boundaries we'd like to keep it within," Armenta said. "We've tried to use some natural barriers as well as some established trails like the Highline."
The fire, which apparently started Sunday evening, is located in rough terrain.
"If you look at the topography up there, it's probably the most dangerous firefighting country in Arizona, if not the nation," Armenta said. "It's just really treacherous up there, so we're obviously concerned about firefighter safety and public safety."
When firefighters first reached the blaze after it was discovered Monday morning, it was about 20 acres in size. Unusual wind patterns sent it briefly toward Camp Geronimo.
"The fire started blowing down towards the Boy Scout camp," firefighter Larry Hettinger of the Payson Ranger District said. "Then around 10 a.m., the winds shifted to a more normal direction out of the southwest and pushed it up to the top of the Rim, and that's why the large increase in acreage."
By mid-afternoon Monday the fire had topped the Rim and moved into the Coconino National Forest. Although local fire departments contributed crews and equipment, early efforts to slow the blaze were hampered by a lack of personnel.
"This is way early to be in fire season," Armenta said. "We don't have our temporary firefighters up. We don't have any Hotshot crews on board yet. We were planning on bringing them on board May 2.
A type 2 incident management team arrived this morning. According to Tonto National Forest Public Information Officer Vinnie Pickard, a total of eight crews and 14 engines will be on the fire by afternoon today. They will be supported by two single engine attack tankers, one heavy plane, two type 3 helicopters, one type 1 helicopter, and a lead plane.
Armenta was fairly confident the fire could be contained at 6,000 acres without threatening any homes.
"Obviously Camp Geronimo is our main concern right now," he said. "But the fire is actually burning up and away from it, and we do have a dozer working down below.
"If it travels east it's probably going to run into some old burns," he said. "The old Geronimo burn is there, and we had the old December Fire in this country two years ago. We want to hold it to the north and east of the 228 trail."
Conditions are very different from those that allowed the Rodeo and Chediski fires to merge into Arizona's largest wildfire two years ago.
"I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that this will not become another Rodeo-Chediski," Armenta said. "We're having that nighttime recovery where the humidity is coming up, where the temperatures are dropping, and it's cooling things off. We're not going to be seeing that extreme fire behavior."
Forest officials are not ready to declare the fire human-caused, but admit that early signs suggest it was.
"It started right next to a trail, so that raised some suspicions," Armenta said.
While officials say it is still too early to close the forest, tinder-dry conditions created by the ongoing drought make that a possibility in the immediate future.
"We started getting suspicious when we were doing some prescribed burning a couple weeks ago," Armenta said. "They were burning pretty hot.
"Then we actually got a couple lightning fires last weekend. One was 50 acres and one was five acres. We're having some pretty extreme fire behavior for this time of year."
An emergency information center has been set up at the Pine Community Center Cultural Hall. It will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.