The night before the Water Wheel Fire erupted, nearly taking out two communities, resident Michelle Ellenburg said she saw a large group of people with a bonfire near the Water Wheel on her way home.
“It was the biggest bonfire I had ever seen,” she said.
She doesn’t know if that blaze started the Water Wheel Fire, but she said it is another example of people disrespecting the forest.
Frequently, Ellenburg said campers leave behind smoldering fires and sometimes even “full blown” fires raging near the crossings.
“They (campers) get to leave and we end up with the problems and the mess,” she said.
Ellenburg’s husband, Brian, said he often extinguishes fires left behind.
In the past year, Brian put out six campfires. On top of that, he constantly picks up trash left behind.
The Ellenburgs said they would like to see fire restrictions put in place because the area is too dry.
Driving out of Whispering Pines Tuesday afternoon, some residents had posted signs to their fences that read, “No More Campfires.”
Michelle asked the Forest Service why restrictions were not in place and was told they could not limit fires because they would have to limit them throughout Tonto National Forest.
“It should be area specific,” she said.
As of press time, Gary Roberts, fire prevention officer with the Tonto National Forest, had not returned phone calls for comment.
On Sunday, Brian said he saw smoke near the crossing, so he drove his quad down to the river to investigate, but the fire department turned him away.
He heard from friends that a family camping at the third crossing had gone hiking to the waterfalls earlier that day. As they reached the end, they saw a wall of fire coming toward them so they raced back to their vehicle but couldn’t get their motor home started. They left it behind, took their truck and drove out safely.
The Forest Service is investigating the cause of the fire.
On Tuesday, as cars were streaming back into Whispering Pines, firefighters told residents they would have to take the Control Road for the next two to three weeks as crews repaired Houston Mesa Road and guard rails.
Anyone trying to exit on Houston Mesa would be ticketed.
Water and electricity were restored to the area, but phone service is expected to be out one to two weeks.
Satellite phones for emergencies are available at the East Verde Baptist Church (at the Houston Mesa Road and Whispering Pines Control Road intersection) and the Whispering Pines Fire Department.