The biggest forest fire in a blessedly quiet season skittered sideways out of control on the whoosh of a storm cell downdraft yesterday below Milk Ranch Point, said Tonto Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts.
Crews had the Ranch Fire nearly stomped out Monday when a fierce downdraft blew it outside the fire lines on every side. By Tuesday morning, the fire had grown to 10 acres, said Roberts.
The fire continued to burn uncontained on Tuesday at press time in the rugged brush between the Highline Trail and the Mogollon Rim -- half a mile east of Highway 87, 600 feet below the Rim and 200 yards above the Highline Trail.
About 70 firefighters, including two hotshot crews and a group of prisoners, labored throughout the day to keep the fire bottled up in the rugged terrain southeast of Pine.
Meanwhile, on Monday crews also halted a six-acre fire along Ellison Creek, close to the area burned by the massive Dude Fire several years ago. In that case, crews used a back burn to consume the fuel in front of the fire and trap it against a Jeep road that provided a fire break. About 14 firefighters worked on that blaze, before shifting to the still uncontained Ranch Fire, said Roberts.
Roberts said the Ranch Fire is "skunking around," burning slowly through trees and brush with a high moisture content, as a result of the 15 inches of rain that have fallen in the area since January.
Before the two fires totaling 16 acres this week, the tally for the season had stood at just three acres. Last year, some 4,000 acres burned, partly because rainfall totaled only 10 inches on the heels of a long drought.
Crews are rooting for the predicted 40 percent chance of rain in the next few days, to help them halt the slow spread of the fire to the west.
"It's not super aggressive," said Roberts, but embers have started small fires away from the main blaze. Crews have quickly stomped out those "spot" fires in the rugged terrain.
Crews hope to turn the Highline Trail into a staging area and line of defense that will keep the fire pinned against the Rim and away from the scattering of cabins and settlements in the forest below.
"Right now, it doesn't look too dangerous," said Roberts.