Fire Closes Beeline, Highway 188; Tonto Basin, Sunflower Evacuated

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Highway 87 was closed at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning after the Edge Complex Fire jumped the road and turned west toward Sunflower.

"The Beeline is closed at the Bush Highway clear up to Highway 188," Sandi Ault, fire information officer, said at 10 a.m. "We just went through there; they're still having real high flame lengths and extreme fire along the highway.

"I don't look for the highway to open real quick."

The fire, which had reached 38,000 acres, forced evacuation of several Tonto Basin communities Thursday night. The Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter at Julia Randall Elementary School and is preparing an overflow shelter at Payson High School.

Evacuated communities

About 100 Tonto Basin residents were evacuated late Thursday afternoon as strong winds pushed the northeast corner of the fire toward Punkin Center and Tonto Basin. The areas west and south of Highway 188, from the old Lauth's grocery store, up to and including Walnut Springs subdivision were cleared out.

More area residents were evacuated at 9 p.m. last night as the fire crossed Highway 188 and moved to the east -- these communities included Sycamore Lane, Mad as Hell Ranch Trailer Park, Sleepy Hollow and El Vagamundo.

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Payson Red Cross volunteer Henry Henkel sets up cots at Julia Randall Elementary School Thursday. The school is serving as an emergency shelter in Payson for Edge Complex Fire evacuees.

Evacuation of Sunflower began Friday morning.

A total of 40 residences and 20 outbuildings are considered threatened, but none had been lost as of 8:30 a.m. Friday.

Eyewitness accounts

Tonto Basin resident John Dryer, who lives on the east side of Highway 188, watched firefighters light backfires around 6 p.m. Thursday evening in an attempt to keep the fire from crossing Highway 188.

"They were starting the backfires," Dryer said, as we watched the firefighters. "It's real smokey, of course, but until about an hour-and-a-half ago it was clear. Then the wind changed, and it looks like it's snowing right here from the ash."

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Ash covers the rooftops of Tonto Basin homes as firefighters battle the Edge Complex Fire.

Tonto Basin has received zero precipitation from the monsoon storms of the last few days, according to Dryer.

Evacuees who were settling in at the Julia Randall shelter around 10 p.m. Thursday night described a harrowing experience. Bob and Beverly Sherman, residents of Walnut Springs, were among the first group.

"I was up until 4:30 a.m. watching the fire to the southwest of us and thinking, ‘You just can't come over that ridge, you just can't,'" Bob Sherman said. "Well, it did."

"On Wednesday night they came knocking at our door and told us we might have to evacuate," Beverly said. "On Thursday, they said, it's time to move -- time to get out.

"We grabbed the dog, our medicine, a change of clothes and some valuables."

George Buchmann was forced to leave too.

"The fire was burning about a mile from my house," he said. "I only got about four hours of sleep last night.

"They told us to stand by to move out so we packed our things. I was up watching that fire at three o'clock in the morning, and it was burning over the ridge.

Shelter information

Lew Levenson, government liaison for the Rim Country branch of the Red Cross, said Thursday night that the Julia Randall shelter was ready for 100 people and could quickly accommodate another 48 if necessary.

"They're evacuating more people now, so we expect to see more," Levenson said. "It's tough to get a handle on how many people will actually come; some will go to relatives or friends or even find a motel."

As of 10 a.m. Friday, only a handful of people were staying at the shelter, according to JRE Principal Peggy Miles.

"We have the cafeteria open for food and information, and then we have the gym open where they're sleeping," Miles said.

Animal shelters have also been established: the Payson Rodeo Grounds for livestock and the Payson Humane Society for pets.

Firefighters battling

The Edge Complex Fire was ignited July 16 by a lightning strike 14 miles north of Apache Junction. By Wednesday afternoon, winds had pushed the fire within 3 miles of Punkin Center and Tonto Basin.

The fire is about 23 miles south of Payson and is burning in steep, rough terrain with limited access. It continues to exhibit erratic behavior due to passing thunderstorm cells.

Structural protection engines have been staged in Punkin Center and Tonto Basin; fire line has been constructed around developed areas south of Punkin Center, and dozer line has been built northeast of the fire to prevent spread to the local communities.

Firefighters working under the supervision of Lineback's New Mexico Type II Incident Management Team continued to make progress on the south half of the fire where fire lines have been holding.

Thursday, the crews burned out fireline on the western flank of the fire.

Besides structural protection of the threatened communities, firefighters hope to continue flanking the north end of the fire and then attack it directly as it moves into lighter fuels and more favorable terrain.

Winds and thunderstorm activity have periodically interrupted communication with firefighters on the scene.

Nearly 700 workers are fighting the fire, assisted by four helicopters, 23 engines, two dozers, and 12 water tenders.

The public information telephone number for the Edge Complex Fire is (480) 357-8138.

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