After fooling around for about two weeks, a slow burning fire in the steep canyon above Whispering Pines shook itself awake over the weekend, expanding to 600 acres in steep, almost inaccessible terrain.
Smoke drifted down into a host of Rim communities on Sunday night, making for a smoky, nervous morning for many residents.
The Forest Service has marshaled 139 firefighters, plus a plane and a helicopter, to make sure the blaze stays contained in Dude Canyon. A lightning bolt touched off the fire near the top of the canyon on July 20 and it’s been working its way slowly downhill ever since.
But on Sunday, rising temperatures and mounting winds dramatically increased the smoke and burn rate, pushing the fire quickly to about 600 acres.
Still, crews should have no trouble stopping the fire at the Highline Trail, well away from the communities up near Washington Park, said Fire Information Officer Gary Roberts, with the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest.
“It’s been burning very vertical, almost inaccessible terrain,” said Roberts. Sunday, it got a lot more active.”
Crews started a backfire on a ridge to halt the spread of the fire to the east and have been developing a fire line along the Highline Trail, which the fire reached on Monday in several places.
“We’re using natural features out there as the predetermined boundary,” said Roberts. “We currently have three hotshot crews, two regular crews, five engines, one type three helicopter, one air attack plane — 139 fire personnel on the fire at this time.”
Roberts noted that the district has actually had more fires than last year, but most have been low intensity and have not threatened structures.
“It has allowed us to manage the fires for the resource benefit,” said Roberts, “but we want to make sure it stays inside the box.”
Relatively low intensity fires that don’t torch whole trees or jump from treetop to treetop thin overgrown thickets, create the kinds of patchy mix of habitats that benefit wildlife and actually return nutrients to the soils. Fires that burn in relatively cool, humid conditions with fuels still moist from winter and summer rain generally therefore benefit the forest overall.
They also reduce the chance of high-intensity fires in bone-dry, hot summer months during droughts when crown fires can lay waste to thousands of acres and sterilize the soil.
Roberts noted that if the Rim Fire does blow across the Rim Trail in spots, it will hit areas where crews have already hand-thinned the forest to protect the string of settlements high up on the East Verde near Washington Park, which is where the Salt River Project pipeline from the Blue Ridge Reservoir empties into the East Verde.
“We feel there’s no danger whatsoever to any structures” from the Rim Fire, said Roberts.
He said the weather predictions call for a chance of rain tomorrow, with a cooling, drying trend setting in on Wednesday.
He said fire crews don’t expect full containment until Aug. 15, with moderate to heavy smoke settling in during the cool of the evening for the next four or five days.
“Residents are going to see smoke up against that Rim for an undetermined length of time,” he said, “but the current heavy to moderate smoke that you’re seeing should abate in the next four or five days.”
He said that even when crews let a low-intensity fire burn, the flames leave a mosaic — with burned patches right next to remaining heavy brush. He said aerial flight over the huge area burned by the Milk Point Fire several weeks ago showed that “the overwhelming majority of that fire was very, very low intensity. Even on the fire that we have right now, it’s been dominantly a ground fire with very few instances in which trees have torched.”
The Forest Service has closed key trails in the fire area. Closures include:
• On the west side, from the top of Rim Trail 290 (Col. Devin Trail) and Trail 390 (Railroad Tunnel Trail) down to the Washington Park Trailhead.
• On the south side from Trail 31 (Highline Trail) at the Washington Park Trailhead east to Trail 30 (Myrtle Trail).
• On the east side Trail 30 (Myrtle Trail) from the top of the Rim south to the intersection of Trail 31 (Highline Trail).