Gila County supervisors declared a state of emergency Monday, reflecting the severe environmental damage and evacuation of 338 homes caused by the Water Wheel Fire.
The blaze, which was no longer growing by the Monday afternoon declaration, burned hot and fast, at one point consuming 400 acres in one hour, said county Director of Emergency Management Matt Bolinger.
The fire burned most intensely from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, said Supervisor Tommie Martin. A little rain and accompanying humidity followed by a cold night helped contain the flames.
“The fire has died way down,” she said. Supervisors and county officials said they were pleased with the speed and collaboration through which a potentially devastating fire was quickly contained.
First reported Sunday at about 2 p.m., firefighting helicopters were initially unavailable because they were being used to fight the fire in California.
“I didn’t know where the rabbit was going to come out of the hat,” Martin said. “We had all the water in the world,” but no way to use it. The county’s system of water bladders and tanks has helped avert many potential catastrophes, including this year’s fire in Pine.
A rabbit did appear, and within hours two air tankers and a helicopter were on scene to drop retardant and water.
Sometime Monday, a helicopter with the capacity to carry 1,200 to 1,800 gallons of water arrived in Payson, with more on call, although officials said the others wouldn’t be necessary.
Firefighting, with all of the crews and equipment, results in a multi-million dollar bill, said Bolinger.
The emergency declaration will allow the county to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency money. If FEMA doesn’t pay, the state pays. If the state doesn’t pay, the county could have to pay.
The declaration also allows officials to enter private property to save people.
Although most Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines residents had evacuated by Sunday night, by Monday afternoon county officials said the threat to homes appeared to have subsided.
With 338 structures evacuated, Bolinger estimated the total number of people fleeing their homes totaled anywhere from 500 to 1,000. He also speculated that Beaver Valley residents might return home by Monday evening, although Whispering Pines residents would likely have to wait.
Local motels provided evacuees discounts, and Payson High School’s auditorium was available for shelter. Horses found refuge at the Event Center, and several people slept in a parking lot with their animals.
With acute concern drifting from the fire, county Public Works Director Steve Stratton said now he worried about a heavy rain storm causing flooding, and “as much or more damage” than the fire.
“It could be a big mess,” he said.