Fire crews are letting two well-behaved, lighting-sparked fires burn atop the Rim, taking advantage of the lingering effects of a three-inch downpour in May.
Although smoke rising from the 70-acre Milk Ranch Point Fire alarmed residents of Pine and Strawberry, Coconino National Forest officials said the fire moving through the damp debris and brush will contribute to a fire break protecting the communities.
Some 60 firefighters have mostly been working to start another fire on Saturday, which they’ll use to sniff out the existing fire and extend the thinned, burn area. Lightning sparked the original fire on May 29.
The fire continues to burn about three miles northeast of Pine on Milk Ranch Point, which has now been closed to public access.
Firefighters will spend the next few days creating a fire break and trimming the lower branches of trees in a buffer zone. As a result, when they set a backfire on Saturday it should stay contained in a particular area as it burns through the brush and debris on the forest floor.
“The main reason that we’re doing this burn is to protect the community of Pine from any catastrophic wildfire danger by reducing heavy fuel loads,” said Jean Gilbertson, Coconino National Forest’s chief fire information officer. “But there will be smoke for Pine, Strawberry and Payson — and in the evening and early morning hours they may be experiencing quite a bit of heavy smoke.”
A lightning strike on May 26 touched off another fire atop the Rim about eight miles south of the Mogollon Rim/Blue Ridge Ranger Station.
However, the “Tucker Fire” has been “creeping around” and has spread to just 40 acres. Crews report the fuel is so wet that the ground fire can’t even burn downed logs.
Gilbertson said the fire crews took advantage of ideal conditions to essentially extend the controlled burning season, thanks to an unusual May series of storms. Normally, May and June are the driest months of the year. That makes June the most dangerous fire season, since storms often come broiling in with lots of lighting but little moisture.
The Forest Service has pushed for the past four years to thin buffer zones around Pine, Strawberry, Payson and other Rim communities. A century of fire suppression has left millions of acres choked with thickets of trees, which now pose a severe fire danger to Rim settlements.
Several other fires also continue to burn in the Coconino Forest near Flagstaff, none of them a threat to structures.