Updated 5:45 p.m.
Firefighters made good progress on the February Fire Thursday, but a return of low humidity today and a "red flag" weather front moving into the area Saturday have them concerned.
"Within the next three to five days we'll have this thing wrapped up with the weather staying status quo," Tony Sciacca, assistant incident commander for the Arizona Central West Zone Incident Management Team, told the Payson Town Council Thursday night. "The bad news is we're getting some long-term weather forecasts for possibly red flag conditions on Saturday which will change the winds, and at that point all bets are off."
The National Weather Service is forecasting a dry, cold frontal system will move into Arizona Saturday, producing strong, sustained northeasterly winds of 20 to 25 miles per hour, with gusts to 35 miles per hour near the Mogollon Rim.
Backfire operations start Friday
Sciacca said crews made good progress on the fire's western flank near Camp Geronimo Thursday.
"Pretty much all the lines are in, but the fire is still backing down to the south," he said. "Tomorrow, weather permitting, we'll actually start our backfiring operation along those control lines. There will be two backfiring operations going on at the same time, one on the western flank, one on the eastern flank. It is our intent to bring the fire down the hill slowly without tearing up the timber that's in there -- more of a controlled burn."
An unexpected increase in humidity, a shift in wind direction from the south to the northeast, and a cloudy Thursday gave firefighters their first break. But a return to lower humidity Friday means increased fire activity, according to Payson Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts.
"The relative humidity will be between 7 and 10 percent," he said Friday morning. "That will make the fire more active today."
Current suppression resources
The fire has grown to 1,961 acres and is currently 10 air miles north of Payson and six air miles east of Pine. Sciacca's Arizona Central West Zone team has taken over the fire from the Coconino and Tonto national forests.
A total of 300 personnel including five Type II hand crews, 15 engines, four dozers, four water tenders, two helicopters and two air tankers are fighting the blaze. Four additional crews and three more helicopters have been ordered.
Structural protection measures continue at Camp Geronimo Boy Scout Camp and the historical Bray Creek Ranch.
"The Tonto has done fuel breaks on either side of the ranch, and we will do burnouts," Sciacca explained to the council. "We will have fire completely around that ranch, but there will be resources in there tonight to protect it."
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 Geronimo, 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.
Investigators have determined the fire, first reported Monday evening, was caused by an abandoned campfire.
The rumor mill
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 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.
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 Web site -- www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality 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.
A neighbor's voice
Scott Ardrey, Strawberry
I think they're going to stop this one, but I'm worried about later fires. I have my papers in an unplugged deep freeze so they won't catch on fire. I think they should close the forest. People up here are really careful with cigarettes and campfires. The people who don't live up here don't understand it's our home. We're just so dry. I don't think people realize how dry we are.
Harris Scott, PSFD
It's earliness is alarming. This particular instance, we're not alarmed, but who can guarantee what the weather does. We're writing letters to people who haven't been cleaning up their yards. I'm changing construction materials from redwood siding to concrete. People can inventory their personal items with a video camera so they can inventory for the insurance company (in the event of a fire).
Barb and Bob England, Pine
It's a little hard to be outside and do anything. It's irritating my eyes. The only good thing is that it's not threatening us. We're always concerned whenever this happens.
Arizona Central West Zone Incident Management Team
Tonto National Forest website