The fire season got off to a quick and scary start this week, with a 43-acre blaze above Pine that filled the sky with billows of smoke, burning in the already dangerously dry brush and dead wood covering the slopes above town.
Moreover, no sooner had Forest Service crews on Wednesday fully contained the Dripping Springs Fire than they got a call of another brush fire starting about five miles away.
Fortunately, the crews left from the already disbursing army of 225 firefighters who battled the Dripping Springs Fire, called in the remaining helicopter and smothered the new fire off Hardscrabble Road before it had time to burn more than a 10th of an acre.
Fire investigators say humans set off both the Dripping Springs Fire and the additional fire on Strawberry Hill on Wednesday.
Firefighters said they’d hoped a wet winter would dampen the fire season, but a bone-dry spring quickly dried out the heaps of fuel and thickets of brush.
“The fuels are very dry,” said incident commander Tony Sciacca, normally based in Prescott. “We didn’t have any extreme fire behavior, but things burned down to white ash.”
Dry fuels produce big billows of black smoke, because the fire burns so hot and fast that it doesn’t even have time to fully consume the wood and brush. Fires burning more slowly in damp fuels put up white smoke.
Crews rushed to Pine from Prescott, Globe, Flagstaff and Phoenix on Monday, after a campfire reportedly got out of control alongside the Pine Creek Trail.
The fire spread quickly up and across the slopes leading into Pine Canyon. Fortunately, the bulk of the fire remained above the wide buffer zone cleared above Pine and Strawberry in the last several years.
A century of fire suppression has left most of the forest choked with more than 1,000 spindly trees per acre — compared to estimated pre-settlement densities of 50 to 100 trees per acre. The slopes of Pine Canyon are also littered with thousands of downed logs and tinder-dry snags left in the wake of a pine beetle infestation.
The Forest Service built up its forces throughout the day on Monday, peaking at 225 firefighters, two helicopters and two bombers.
Crews had a tentative line around the fire by Tuesday, but braced for predicted high winds on Tuesday afternoon.
Crews hiked up the steep slopes, laden with gear, to quickly chain saw a firebreak below the fire and dig a trench along a long, contour of the slope.
The trench caught logs and burning debris rolling down the steep slope from the heart of the fire, to keep the flames from spreading downslope into the thickets of trees.
Fortunately, the fire remained contained despite the winds — although it had reached the top of the Rim and burned about five acres on top before the air drops of fire retardant stopped its spread.
The crush of trucks, crews and planes made the fire line and staging ground look like headquarters for a much larger fire. But the proximity to Pine and concern about the quickly drying fuels prompted the Forest Service to ring the alarm bell quickly.
That bolstered force proved perfectly positioned when word came in on Tuesday that another fire had started about five miles away off Hardscrabble Road.
“That fire had big potential,” said Sciacca, but water drops from the helicopter still on scene stopped it quickly.
“The cause remains under investigation, but appears human caused,” he said.
Weather forecasters had been predicting a fire season much like last year’s blessedly quiet summer. However, the lack of spring rains has raised the fire danger considerably.
Forecasters have called for storms in the high country over the weekend.