Posted 5:30 p.m.
Although the February Fire grew to 1,500 acres, firefighters got their first break Wednesday night when an unusual burst of humidity gave them a breather.
"Last night was just terrific, because it really laid down," Payson Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts said. "We got this fire and it's been so active because the fuels are so dry and the relative humidity has just been ridiculous.
"Even in the heat of summer, you can count on a relative humidity recovery in the evening and the fire will lie down, and in a normal winter that would be even moreso. Recovery is much greater than it ever is in the summer."
But because of the drought, the recovery rate had been minimal until Wednesday night, when the relative humidity climbed from its recent levels of 6 or 7 percent to 40 percent at 9 p.m.
"It was completely unexpected," Roberts said. "We got a break in the weather last night, and the fire grew very little.
"It has given us a temporary respite. It has bought us time."
Wind shift slows fire
Firefighters got a second assist from Mother Nature when the winds shifted from out of the northeast to out of the south, according to Roberts.
"We've had these hard, gradient northeast winds," he said. "A gradient wind is something that hugs very close to the terrain and it pushed the fire down the drainages to places like Poison Canyon to the southwest and it was giving us a lot of problems.
"Now we've got a wind coming out of the south, and essentially it's pushing the fire back into itself and back into areas where it's already taken away the fuels."
The fire is currently 10 air miles north of Payson and six air miles east of Pine.
The Arizona Central West Zone Incident Management Team has taken over the fire from the Coconino and Tonto national forests. Thursday, the plan was to take full advantage of the cooler weather, calmer winds and slightly higher relative humidity. In addition to extensive air attack, crews and dozers continue building and reinforcing lines.
Structural protection measures continue at the Bray Creek Ranch and the Camp Geronimo Boy Scout Camp.
New fire lines
"Our current strategy is to keep it north of Control Road 64, east of Forest Road 440, which is a road out by Camp Geronino, and west of Forest Road 32 that goes up to 646," Roberts said. "Essentially we want to keep it west of Shadow Rim Ranch."
Firefighters had originally hoped to contain the fire within an area bounded by the Mogollon Rim Road to the north, the Highline Trail to the south and the burned out areas from two older fires, the Webber to the west and the Pack Rat to the east.
The fire, which is about 12 miles north of Payson, was first reported Monday evening. Investigators have determined it was human-caused.
"It's an abandoned campfire," Jean Gilbertson, Mogollon Rim Ranger District information officer, said.
Whispering Pines not threatened
Roberts also discounted reports on a local radio station that officials are concerned about Whispering Pines.
"One of our biggest problems is the rumor mill," Roberts said. "Whispering Pines is about five air miles from the fire.
"We consider that a long range risk, and Washington Park is not threatened either."
Those communities and several others are on the east side of the fire, where considerable progress has been made.
"We had our type 1 helicopter in there yesterday really pounding that area, really loading it up with water, and we made a lot of good progress," Roberts said. "We have fire in that area but it's really not very active; it's really just smoldering."
In the unlikely event the fire does get close to Whispering Pines, it will run into areas treated for fuels reduction, making it much easier to deal with, according to Roberts.
A total of 300 personnel including five type-2 hand crews, 15 engines, four dozers, four water tenders, three helicopters and two air tankers are fighting the blaze.
Road and trail closures are in effect for the Mogollon Rim Road, Forest Road 147 from its intersection with Highway 87 to Forest Road 300, and Forest Road 300 from its intersection with Highway 87 and including access to Milk Ranch Point.
The Tonto National Forest has closed the area around the fire from the Mogollon Rim on the north, Pine on the west, the Control Road on the south, and the East Verde River on the east. For further closure and fire information, see the Tonto National Forest website -- www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Arizond Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) Director Steve Owens announced that air quality monitoring equipment is being deployed near Payson, Pine and Strawberry to monitor ambient air quality around the February Fire.
"We are monitoring air quality to keep track of any significant impact from the smoke and (we will) notify the public immediately if it poses a risk to area residents," Owens said. "We want to make sure that we take every precaution to protect area residents from any potential health effects from the smoke."
ADEQ's air quality monitoring equipment will collect and assess data for particulate matter, a major air pollutant found in wildfire smoke.