Fears that a forest fire on the Mogollon Rim would spread were all but thwarted this week with low winds allowing firefighters to wrangle in the Willow Fire.
Unfortunately, just as crews were mopping up, another fire broke out, this time eight miles northeast of Heber-Overgaard.
As of Friday morning, the Wash Fire has burned through 1,000 acres and several power lines, cutting off power Thursday to some Heber-Overgaard residents.
On the Mogollon Rim, the Willow Fire stands at 213 acres with 75 percent containment. The fire was initially estimated at 400 acres.
Nearly 400 fire personnel hit the fire hard shortly after it was spotted Sunday a few miles north of Bear Canyon Lake in an area of towering ponderosa pines and low grasses.
With high temperatures, winds and dry forest conditions, it has been the “perfect storm” for a busy fire season, said William Bishop, public information officer with the Eastern Arizona Incident Management Team.
“All the fuels are so dry and when we get wind events, they just want to take off,” Bishop said.
By Wednesday, there were no visible flames on the Willow Fire, with crews mopping up smoldering grasses and tree stumps. The Incident Management Team, which took over suppression efforts Monday night, is hopeful they can turn the fire back over to the Forest Service.
“It is looking like, and we are cautiously optimistic, that we can turn it back over to Forest Service Friday night,” Bishop said.
While the fire may appear out, Bishop said it is crucial crews double back and improve containment lines so if winds do pick up again, there won’t be any flareups.
“Getting it knocked down is step one,” he said. “But doing mop up is just as important. They will mitigate any heat issues and begin cutting again, there won’t be any flareups.
“Getting it knocked down is step one,” he said. “But doing mop up is just as important. They will mitigate any heat issues and begin cutting down any tress that are hazards. That actually takes several days.”
On Wednesday, fire crews mopped up more than 300 feet within the fire line and patrolled the outside of the perimeter looking for hot spots.
“There is nothing going on out there now but smoldering,” Bishop said.
Crews will continue work around the fire area, cutting snags down and starting rehabilitation work.
To date, it has cost almost a million dollars to fight the Willow Fire, with crews from across the country, including Idaho, Oregon and Nebraska trucked in to help.
Bishop said they bring in enough people needed to knock the fire down in the shortest amount of time.
In the last few weeks, thousands of firefighters have descended throughout the state, helping to fight the Willow, Wallow, Horseshoe 2 and Monument fires.
“We are singing the praises of the men and women on the lines,” he said. “They have worked around the clock and done a great job.”
When asked about the weather conditions in Arizona, a firefighter from western Montana said it is much warmer than he is used to and a firefighter from the Oregon coast said the dryness makes him thirsty all the time.
For many firefighters, this is their second or third fire of the year. Bishop and his crew have already been on five fires, with the Wallow Fire the biggest.
Wallow Fire 67 percent contained
The Wallow Fire stands at 67 percent containment with 535,000 acres burned. Nearly 3,000 personnel remain on scene. The Wallow Fire has destroyed 40 structures, 32 homes and injured a dozen people.
There have been no serious injuries on the Wallow Fire.
The Arizona State Forestry Division mobilized more than 100 fire departments from towns, rural fire districts, and volunteer fire organizations. “This is the largest deployment of local fire department resources in Arizona history,” said David Geyer, State Fire Management officer.
“There’s been an unprecedented sense of teamwork this season, with more than 200 fire engines/water tenders deployed on behalf of local fire departments and private organizations throughout the state, protecting lives and property.”
Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch is among the dozens of local firefighters who responded.
Hatch returned from 13 days on the Wallow Fire on the afternoon of June 16 with another crew of four returning from the Monument Fire Thursday afternoon. Hatch said of the 11 years he has served on forest fires, the Wallow Fire was one of the smokiest.
“We were right at the head of the fire the whole time,” he said. “We kept moving back to hold it.”
Hatch’s division served near Nutrioso and saved four homes, although another was lost.
“By the time crews got there, one home was already fully engulfed and the home next to it had its porch on fire,” he said. “We knocked it down and saved the other four homes, which is remarkable because none of them had done firewise.”
On the Monument Fire, the Hellsgate crew saved five homes, but lost several others.
“They went in and saved what they could,” Hatch said.
Hellsgate and other area units are on standby for additional fires.
“Before another fire starts, take the time to thank your local firefighters; they are heroes,” Geyer said.
Hatch encouraged all homeowners to firewise their properties.
“I cannot stress it enough,” he said. “There is a reason we are pushing it — it works. Until the forest is thinned down we have to do it.”
And with the conditions in Rim Country drier than at the Wallow Fire, Hatch said it is crucial homeowners clear the area around their homes.
For more information on firewise, visit www.firewise.org.
With the Fourth of July weekend approaching, officials remind everyone that the use of fireworks is not permitted anywhere on Forest Service land. In addition, there are fire restrictions on most forests. “Please realize the forest is very dry,” Bishop said.
The use of fireworks in the forest almost guarantees ignition.
Willow Fire closures:
The area around Bear Canyon Lake and Promontory Butte, including surrounding trails and campgrounds, remains closed.
Road closures: Forest Road 91 eastbound at Forest Road 89, Forest Road 75 northbound and westbound off Forest Road 34 (Forest Road 34 is open), Forest Road 84 north of Forest Road 300 and Forest Road 89 north of Forest Road 300.
Restrictions: Stage II fire restrictions have been in place on the Sitgreaves Forest of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests since June 3. For information on forest restrictions, visit www.fs.usda.gov/asnf/.