Normally, when you get a 1,200-acre fire in June that burns to within two miles of Pine, you’d have evacuations, panic in the street and anxious residents wetting down their roofs.
But this year — fire crews up on the Rim have been setting fires of their own, and hoping rain flurries don’t put it all out too soon.
The 1,200-acre blaze that since May 29 has burned almost the whole of the massive Milk Ranch Point that projects into the heart of Pine and Strawberry worked out “just perfect,” according to Coconino National Forest fire information officer Jean Gilbertson.
The lightning-spurred fire burned almost everything west of Forest Service Road 218, consuming debris, saplings, brush and acres of trees killed by bark beetles during the drought. After noting that the fire was burning slowly through ground debris as a result of an unseasonably wet May, fire crews spent a couple of days creating a fire break, then setting a back burn — to turn the natural fire into a controlled burn.
The result will provide major protection for Pine and Strawberry from wildfires —which in a normal, hot, tinder-dry June, could easily start in the forest, burn out onto the plateau, and rain embers down on the thick forests around those two communities at the base of the Mogollon Rim.
“It was a pretty big threat,” said Gilbertson of the proximity of the overgrown peninsula to the communities below. “But this worked out perfect — we achieved our goal and all is well.”
The Milk Point Fire has intermittently alarmed residents of Pine and Strawberry. The fire continued to burn atop the Rim Thursday, but the natural fires and the controlled burn had nearly linked up.
Thick smoke formed a frightening wall by day, and often sank and drifted through the communities below at night. That frightened some residents and set others to coughing and wheezing, but in the end, the burn will add an important chunk to the fire breaks the Forest Service has created by hand-thinning.
The rain in late May transformed the most dangerous portion of the fire season into a chance to do a few thousand acres of additional forest thinning and fuel reduction. All of the worst fires in recent Arizona history have taken place in June, when the forest is dry and subjected to pre-monsoon storms — with lots of lightning and not much rain.
But the National Weather Service predicts the wet, summer monsoon season will start a bit earlier than normal this year — and bring more moisture than normal — especially in Rim Country.
The 40 or 50 firefighters working the Milk Point Fire will now move on to the nearby Tucker Fire, a 115-acre blaze eight miles south of the Mogollon Rim/Blue Ridge Ranger Station on Dick Hart Ridge. The crews fighting the Milk Point Fire will likely shift to that fire Saturday and Sunday.