Dodged The Bullet

Rain, winds firefighters trap 773-acre blaze as evacuees return home

Close call: The Water Wheel Fire produced a mass of flames that came within a quarter-mile of  Beaver Valley before aerial bombers dropping fire suppressant, and a sharp shift in the winds drove the flames up Diamond Rim, effectively trapping a dangerous fire.
To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

Close call: The Water Wheel Fire produced a mass of flames that came within a quarter-mile of Beaver Valley before aerial bombers dropping fire suppressant, and a sharp shift in the winds drove the flames up Diamond Rim, effectively trapping a dangerous fire. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a> |

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

This gutted tree continued to burn for hours after the fire moved away from its starting point near the Water Wheel Campground. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Moonscape: Forest Service firefighter Pat Edwards trudges through the burned area above Beaver Valley. Edwards and crews from an array of agencies spent Sunday night clearing a fire break. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

AFTER THE FLAME: The Water Wheel Fire burned across the southern face of Diamond Rim on Sunday afternoon, pushed by strong winds from the north. But just as it had advanced through the thick brush to within a quarter-mile of Beaver Valley, a shift in the wind drove it back up and over the crest of Diamond Rim. Behind, the flames left this eerie landscape. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

GRAB YOUR STUFF: Hundreds of residents fled Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines, with only a few minutes to pack their cars. Here, people ease past the roadblock on Houston Mesa Road, with a thick column of smoke rising from where the brush and trees are burning a quarter-mile from Beaver Valley. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

By sunset on Sunday the fire seemed to have spread to the sky itself above this ridge near the Water Wheel Campground. Investigators believe the fire started near the road opposite the Water Wheel Campground, but haven’t yet determined a cause. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Firefighters spent Sunday night with chain saws clearing a narrow break of cleared dirt between the burned area and Beaver Valley to prevent the heat at the fire’s edge from igniting the thick brush and renewing its assault on the forested community. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Aftermath: The Water Wheel Fire left this charred landscape near the campground, but firefighters saved the power lines. Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines had power restored soon after the fire passed. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

On Sunday afternoon, thick smoke created an ominous but strangely beautiful sunset. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

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Guy Lewis/Special to the Roundup

Photographer Guy Lewis took this shot of the fire bearing down on Beaver Valley.

Residents of Beaver Valley cheered at a Forest Service briefing in the high school gym last night when they learned that not only did their homes survive a fierce, wind-whipped fire on Sunday, but they could all go home as of 9 p.m. Monday night.

Residents of Whispering Pines will have to wait until 5 p.m. today (Tuesday) via the Control Road, but at least they should have homes to return to, said Tony Sciacca, in command of some 450 firefighters gathered to contain the 773-acre blaze that came within a quarter-mile of consuming homes in Whispering Pines and Beaver Valley on Sunday.

The fire that had rampaged out of control on Sunday behaved itself on Monday, having effectively trapped itself by burning upslope on three sides sides of the steep slopes of Diamond Point, which looms between the two forest communities. The predicted surge in winds that had alarmed firefighters on Monday morning, instead delivered mostly rain on Monday night.

Throughout the day on Monday, the fire mostly smoldered, spotted and fumed largely within the limits it had created on Sunday, when it had lunged first north toward Whispering Pines, then south toward Beaver Valley, before chasing itself up the sides of Diamond Rim, with flames leaping 50 feet above the treetops creating a mushroom cloud visible across Rim Country.

The fire trapped itself, with burning fronts sauntering both east and west on the edge of a smoldering burn almost two square miles in size, with the live flames all some two miles from the nearest structure and substantial overnight rains predicted.

Welcomed rain

Residents bunked with friends, family, church members and amiable strangers, waiting anxiously to learn when the Forest Service would let them back into their homes. In the end, the storms that had initially turned fire of “suspicious” origins into a monster, also tamed it — especially the half an inch of rain that fell Sunday and Monday nights, just in time to help save Whispering Pines.

“That little rain squall could have saved Whispering Pines,” said Chuck Jacobs, head of the Houston Mesa Fire Department, former Payson Fire Chief and this week serving as a spokesman for the Forest Service-led effort.

Beaver Valley residents said they also wondered whether their community would survive, as flames leaping 50 feet above the tops of the shrubby pinon pines and thick junipers bore down the brush-choked slopes.

Flame suppressant chemicals laid down by two Forest Service bombers and a sudden, strong shift in the wind turned the roaring flames back just short of the north bank of the East Verde. Without the wind shift, the fire could have jumped the river and entered the community.

“It came over the ridge, a solid line of fire,” said Linda Kremeyer. “I couldn’t believe how fast it was going. I was grabbing things to throw in the car and I came back up to the house and looked around and I’m thinking ‘all these things I’ve collected for naught.’”

Leslie, who didn’t want to give her last name, said she was staying with her cousin and she grabbed her cousin’s pets when the evacuation order came. Her cousin told her to go ahead, while she watered down the roof one more time. Leslie spent the rest of the evening vainly seeking news of her cousin at the makeshift evacuation center at Payson High School’s gym.

“I was so frightened, I just left,” she said. “I think they stayed. I think they stayed. Have you heard anything about Whispering Pines?”

Fire started near campground

Fire officials said the blaze, probably of “human origin,” started just opposite the popular Water Wheel Campground on Houston Mesa Road, a fluke of wind, rain and terrain kept it mostly contained to the steep Diamond Rim.

But on Sunday, for a time it looked like the fire would realize the worst nightmares of two rural communities alongside the East Verde River, tight-knit communities of retirees, part-timers and a few full-time locals who have long treasured their forested views and their leafy neighborhood.

Erratic winds quickly fanned the flames, pushing it across the road on both sides of the frightened occupants of the campground. The streamside campground and lush riparian area leading to twin waterfalls and deep pools remains one of the jewels of Rim Country, but residents complain of the lack of regulation, frequent campfires and absence of bathroom facilities. Several residents at Monday night’s meeting pleaded with the Forest Service to ban campfires in the future, although investigators have not said campers had anything to do with the blaze.

The fires actually started alongside the road opposite the campground, but jumped the road, burned then hopscotched through the campsites and up the hillsides on either side, leaving most of the streamside vegetation intact. Still, firefighters now fear that the denuded slopes above the stream will erode quickly, perhaps causing long-term damage to the stream itself.

The fire then made a run up Houston Mesa Road, scorching the popular Second Crossing camping and fishing spot and making a determined run on Whispering Pines, several miles distant.

But abrupt, swirling wind shifts pushed another arm of the fire up the steep slopes of Diamond Rim, choked with manzanita, oak brush, pinon pines and juniper that hadn’t burned in a century. The flames devoured the slope, dancing like demons 50 feet above the tops of the tallest trees.

The fire consumed at least 500 acres Sunday and another 221 acres on Monday, without the reported destruction of any structures.

Outgunned, often volunteer crews from Houston Mesa, Beaver Valley, Hellsgate, Payson and other communities provided the first response, evacuating residents, stationing equipment at the edge of the settlements and pushing up toward the fire. Crews from the Tonto National Forest’s Payson Ranger District took the point in moving up to the fire, calling in helicopters, two Forest Service bombers and crews, initially trying to stretch their resources since huge fires in California had sucked up most of the crews in the region.

Helped by the shifts in the wind, the rain in the clouds and the frail line of defense laid down by the bombers, the thin line of crews helped get everyone to safety and throw up a line at the edge of the fire once it turned back, working doggedly through the night.

Fire crews gathered up from a wide region overnight attacked the fire Monday morning, hoping to keep it contained on Diamond Rim and away from the forest communities of Whispering Pines, Beaver Valley, Freedom Acres, Cold Springs Ranch and Geronimo Estates.

The fire camp set up at the Horse Camp along Houston Mesa Road gathered up Forest Service Hot Shot crews and engines, men and equipment from throughout the region, including Flagstaff, Prescott, Gila Bend and elsewhere.

Evacuees, who had only about 15 minutes to throw their things into their cars and flee, spent the next two days sorting rumors and making do. A few people spent the night in a makeshift evacuation center at Payson High School’s gym, but most apparently stayed with family and friends as they waited through the night for word on whether the fire had reached their subdivisions.

Perfect strangers offered shelter, hotels gave free or deeply discounted rooms, the Red Cross handed out pizza, soft drinks and cookies and everyone settled in for the nerve-racking wait. Gerardo’s Italian Bistro and others provided free food to evacuees.

The order to evacuate came just after 2 p.m., prompting residents to hastily throw together their most precious possessions and join a procession of cars making their way out along narrow, winding Houston Mesa Road.

Residents of Whispering Pines were directed out the Control Road, since the fire was burning on both sides of Houston Mesa Road between them and the highway.

Several residents reportedly remained in the development to water down their roofs. Constructed alongside the East Verde in a thickly forested area about six miles further up Houston Mesa Road from Beaver Valley, the community’s only exit besides Houston Mesa is the long, forested, dirt Control Road.

Residents of Beaver Valley made their way out Houston Mesa Road, since the fire remained on the other side of the East Verde River. Thick smoke that drifted all the way into Payson harried them as they hurried out. Many initially stopped at a pullout and overlook near Shoofly ruins, to watch the whole mountain above their homes burn, sending up a thick column of smoke that developed its own thunderhead — like a mushroom cloud.

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