Beleaguered residents of Pine and Strawberry received good news Wednesday night -- the progression of the Cave Creek Complex fire has stopped on its northern flank, at least for the time being.
"I feel good; I feel very confident we're going to keep this fire well away from Strawberry and Pine," Type 1 Incident Commander Dan Oltrogge told approximately 2,000 people packed into and outside Pine Cultural Hall.
Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, concurred.
"The fire is burning with really low intensity, and it's got a long way to go," Armenta said. "But we've got a good plan; we're starting to work the plan. I'm very confident it's going to work."
Their optimism is based on a stall of the fire's progression Tuesday and Wednesday.
"I just got through flying the fire this afternoon," Oltrogge said. "Those huge columns you're seeing and all the smoke is primarily coming out way south of here in the New River Mountains above Black Canyon City; they're having big problems down there."
The primary activity on the north flank is toward I-17 south of Dugas Road, where firefighters are working to complete a fire line by Friday morning.
As of Wednesday evening, the northeast corner of the fire was still about 25 miles from Pine and Strawberry due to a combination of factors.
"It got itself into an area where there's a lack of fuel, and some firefighters are doing some very hard work, and those aviators putting the retardant in there, and the helicopter pilots doing the bucket work," Oltrogge said. "It didn't move today; it didn't move hardly at all yesterday."
But Oltrogge and Armenta explained to residents that fire behavior is erratic so a trigger point for the evacuation of Pine and Strawberry has been established.
"We look way out in front of that fire -- what's out there in case it wants to continue to move," Oltrogge said. "If we're not successful, we want that area protected as best we can, and the first thing we look at are communities -- Strawberry and Pine.
"We establish what we like to call trigger points. All that means is if it gets in there we've gotten ourselves to a decision point," said Oltrogge.
Once a fire reaches a trigger point the situation is carefully assessed.
"There's a lot of variables involved," Oltrogge said. "What time did it get there, what are the current and predicted weather conditions, and what do we think it's going to do in the very near future."
Armenta identified the trigger point that could lead to the evacuation of the two communities.
"If it crosses the river at a place called Ikes Backbone, right across there at Cedar Bench," he said. "If it gets in that drainage across from the East Verde, that would be a trigger point."
If the trigger point is reached, the fire would take about 13 hours to travel to Pine. Unless, of course, firefighters can stop it, and Oltrogge thinks they'd have a good chance.
"There are some things that are working in our favor," he said. "The fuels are what we call inconsistent -- there's broken bare ground in there; there's vertical rock. We use that to our advantage.
"Also, if it gets up on Deadman Mesa between Hardscrabble and Fossil, those two drainages, it's open piñon-juniper. That's a good thing for us; we have a chance to go in and grab fires in open piñon-juniper on flat ground."
But both Armenta and Oltrogge repeatedly expressed their confidence that it won't be necessary.
"We look at that stuff not because a community is in immediate danger," Oltrogge said. "We get very, very proactive. We want to be well out ahead of the fire -- get out on the offensive and stay on the offensive."
At 199,368 acres, the Cave Creek Complex fire has grown to the second largest in Arizona history. It was formed when the Bronco and Humboldt fires combined near Cave Creek a week ago.
About 2,000 firefighters are fighting the inferno, 700 in Oltrogge's north zone and 1,300 in the south zone, led by Jeff Whitney's Type 1 Incident Management Team. The zone line is, for the most part, Bloody Basin Road.
For more information on the Cave Creek Complex Fire and other fires burning on the Tonto National Forest, check the Forest Service website at www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
You can also log on to the official Cave Creek Complex Fire website at: fireteam-sw.com/whitney/cavecreek.
For information on forest closures, look on the web at http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire under "Restrictions.