Crews reopened Houston Mesa Road on Sunday all the way from Beaver Valley to Whispering Pines, offering residents their first, sobering, close-up view of the devastation wrought by the Water Wheel Fire.
The road led past a haunted, bristling forest of blackened trees, without a trace of green, extending from just beyond Beaver Valley to the slope below Second Crossing.
Runoff from the 770-acre burn of still undetermined cause has already turned the banks of the East Verde sooty black all the way down past East Verde Estates with dirt and ash washed into the creek immediately after the fire.
The Water Wheel campground itself had only scattered burned patches, but the leaves of several of the giant sycamores on the edge of the campsite hung brown and lifeless. Up the path to the popular swimming hole and waterfall, suddenly brown-leafed sycamores marked the effect of the heat from the fire, which consummed the hillsides on either side of the creek.
Fortunately, the fire mostly stopped short of second crossing, which includes a series of camping areas and a trout-stocked fishing hole.
Residents can now drive to Whispering Pines on either Houston Mesa Road or the Control Road.
Investigators have yet to announce a cause of the fire, which started opposite the Water Wheel campground.
Signs alongside the road indicate that the campground and creek beyond remain closed. Several residents of Whispering Pines have adorned their front yards with hand-lettered signs proclaiming “No More Campfires” or “Close the Forest.”
The acting head ranger for the Payson Ranger District Larry Vogel said he didn’t know whether the Forest Service would consider imposing new restrictions on campers at Water Wheel, which he noted was not an official campground.
He also said he didn’t know whether the Forest Service had acted on long-standing requests from Beaver Valley residents to build a short road across public land to create a second, emergency exit from the subdivision, which was forced to evacuate by the rapid approach of the fire.