One of the most pristine areas in the United States, and a riparian creek considered sacred by the Yavapai-Apache Nation, was spared damage this week, thanks to the quick thinking of Arizona Public Service crews.
Twelve APS employees were working May 12 near Fossil Creek, helping decommission the Irving Power Plant, when a tourist approached them saying a fire was burning in the canyon.
"They called the Forest Service and then went to see what they could do," APS regional manager Jan Parsons said. "By the time they got there, the fire was about the size of a football field."
Rather than wait for firefighting crews, the crews went to work building a fire line around the blaze.
"They had picks, shovels and (water) pumps working on it," Parsons said.
Coconino National Forest firefighters arrived later and took over the firefight.
By that evening, they had it contained and the following day declared it controlled at eight acres.
"The fire received quick initial attack, thanks to our Red Rock and Verde engines and helitack support," Coconino National Forest public affairs officer Karen Malis-Clark said.
Hotshot crews from Flagstaff and Blue Ridge Ranger Districts were also dispatched.
The fire charred an area six miles west of Strawberry near the junction of FR 708 and FR 502 -- the winding road that leads down to the springs.
Malis-Clark said it was human caused and National Forest law enforcement officers are investigating.
Last summer, the 10-year project of shutting down the Irving and Childs power plants and freeing the waters of Fossil Creek was completed.
The event was possibly the first time in Arizona that a dammed waterway had been voluntarily restored to its natural flow.
Fossil Creek has the unusual quality of developing travertine pools, which provide ideal areas for fish to spawn. Travertine pools form when limestone is deposited by water.
At the decommissioning of the power plants, Jamie Fullmer, chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, lauded APS for helping return the area to its original beauty, saying, "To us, the water is sacred."
Biologists anticipate that returning spring-water flows to the stream's original contour will create a unique travertine habitat of dams and pools that will extend over a 10-kilometer stretch.
With the power plants now inoperative, wildlife officials expect native fish numbers, which had dwindled due to competition from exotic species and decreased flows, to be on the upswing.
To ensure the project's success, the game and fish department has closed Fossil Creek to fishing until 2007.
Had the fire not been extinguished and consumed the Fossil Springs, it would have destroyed a vital area being studied by scientists from Northern Arizona University.
"Studying it is a lifetime (opportunity) because we don't see deconstruction and reconstruction of ecosystems," said Bill Auberle, director of Engineering Programs at NAU.
Although the Tonto National Forest has fire restrictions in place, Coconino has none as of yet.
"We are monitoring conditions daily to determine if and when restrictions are needed," Coconino Fire Management Officer Bruce Greco said.
NFS officials are, however, asking visitors to the Coconino to be extremely careful in helping prevent another of the rash of forest fires that have kept crews hopping.
"There have been 50 initial attack fires on the Coconino since January, nine below the Rim," Clark said.