Disaster Averted After Two Boys Start Fire

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It started as a game, but as the boys watched flames spread rapidly along the creek bed toward homes and businesses, they faced an agonizing decision -- to run away or get help.

According to fire officials, the two local boys from Strawberry had been playing with matches behind the historic Strawberry Lodge on Highway 87 around 4 p.m. Friday afternoon.

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Mark Tiffany, captain of Engine #46 of the Payson Ranger District Fire Crew, starts a back burn as a way of reducing fuels in the area where two boys started a fire in Strawberry Friday.

As their matches hit the ground, the flames were fueled by gusty winds and extremely dry brush, quickly spreading the blaze to within 150 feet of occupied structures.

The boys decided to get help and alerted adults who then called emergency teams.

"We do have a confession from two minor males," said Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Bill Dekker. "This certainly had potential to be a disaster, but because of quick response the disaster was averted.

"The (juveniles) just don't understand how dry it is and how fast fire can spread. They're going to get an education out of this, and hopefully they'll learn not to play with fire."

Fast-acting residents, business owners and patrons initially joined together to attack the fire.

Part-time resident Terry Greene of Scottsdale owns the 1888 Calloway cabin located 150 yards from where the fire started.

"I looked up and saw smoke," he said. "I grabbed my fire extinguisher and ran down to help. There was already 20 or 25 people fighting the fire with fire extinguishers and whatever they had. There were people from the Strawberry Lodge and business owners.

"We're always worried about fire, but this time it was a little too close to home."

Firefighters from throughout the area responded quickly.

"Because of the extreme fire danger we've got a coordinated effort with the Forest Service," Dekker said. "What we have is called a Severity Patrol. Payson, Diamond Star or Pine-Strawberry fire departments are on Severity Patrol seven days a week. It provides at least one to two additional units to help us respond faster, and the benefits are right here in front of us.

"In this case, Diamond Star was on patrol. It's a rotating schedule from Christopher Kohl's throughout the county. Two years ago they wouldn't have been here unless we called them. We're working together because fire respects no boundaries."

Dekker said the partnership was invaluable. "There are a lot of fire departments that do not have the resources to do this."

With dozens of area firefighters on the scene, including Arizona State Land and Forest Service crews, fire officials put the teams to work to make the area safer.

"It's now basically become a fuel-reduction project," Dekker said. "This whole area of the Fossil Creek bed has been a concern for years. This is like no man's land."

Gila County Sheriff's Deputy and fire investigator Colt White said the juveniles are in a lot of trouble, but that in the end they made an important decision.

"You've got to tip your hat to them for one thing," White said. "They immediately took responsibility for their actions and sought adults for help, which probably prevented a major tragedy. They could have just run off and this fire could have escalated to take personal property and possibly lives."

Charges against the two boys are pending.

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