Two major fires continued to burn in Rim Country on Thursday, sending smoke drifting throughout the region and inflicting a renewed fire season on weary firefighters.
The Mistake Peak Fire grew to 4,800 acres some 12 miles northeast of Punkin Center near the lower end of Roosevelt Lake.
Meanwhile, the lightning-caused Charley Fire grew to 2,300 acres about three miles west of Sunflower.
The National Weather Service forecast calls for a roughly 40 percent chance of rain each day through the weekend. But on Wednesday and Thursday the unsettled monsoon conditions mostly delivered scattered lightning strikes and gusty winds, which drove the fires and kept firefighters on edge.
The firefighting helicopters based at the Payson Airport for months before the onset of the monsoon in July, returned with the sputtering of the storms in August.
Normally, Payson gets about 3.2 inches of rain in August, but so far we’ve had about .7 of an inch. Payson has accumulated about 5.5 inches so far this year compared to a normal total of 14.12 inches by now. The whole state remains in the grip of a “severe” to “extreme” drought.
The Mistake Peak Fire spread fitfully this week, chewing through rugged terrain covered with thick stands of pinyon and juniper.
The number of firefighters assigned to the stubborn blaze this week grew to 422. Crews used bulldozers to create firelines on the north and southeast sides of the fire, bringing the containment to 15 percent. The fire mostly crept through the thick brush, with gusts of winds sometimes driving it up into treetops to make brief crown fire runs. Enough moisture remains in the fuels from the ample July rains and the 43 percent humidity have combined to moderate the fire’s behavior.
As a precaution, measures have been taken to protect structures on the southeast edge at Greenback Valley Estates and on the southwestern edge at Dupont Cabin.
Incident Commander Trainee David Bales said, “Firefighters are doing an amazing job given record high temperatures, extremely steep terrain and strong thunderstorm activity.”
Resources include four hotshot crews, seven 20-person crews, 15 engines, four dozers, four water tenders and three helicopters.
The Forest Service has closed several roads in the area. The first closure begins at the intersection of FR 71 and FR 609, heading north, northeast along FR 609 until the junction with FR 416, then east on FR 416 to FR 86, then east on FR 486 to State Route (SR) 288, along the western edge of SR 288 to FR 609, then west along FR 609 to FR 486, south and west along FR 486 to FR 236, south and west along FR 236 to the junction with FR 236A, southwest along FR 236A until FR 71, west along FR 71 to FR 609.
The Forest Service has also closed the Cholla Campground, including the entrance road from State Highway 188.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has also set up smoke monitors in Payson, to detect any potentially unhealthy buildup of smoke. Generally, so long as visibility remains greater than about 10 miles, air quality remains good. If visibility declines to between 3 and 5 miles, the air can pose a health risk for people with breathing problems. If visibility falls below about 2.5 miles, the air is probably unhealthy — and people should avoid outdoor exertion. Once visibility falls below a mile, the air is generally unhealthy and smoke-sensitive people should remain indoors.
Meanwhile, an estimated 82 firefighters spent the week trying to contain the 2,300-acre Charley Fire, with help from two Arizona National Guard helicopters and an air attack plane assigned to keep tabs on the fire. The operation has already cost $90,000, with the fire only 15 percent contained.
The fire continues to burn through grass and brush in “extremely rough” terrain just north of Maverick Mountain, which is between Bartlett Lake and Highway 87. Rising humidity as the monsoon pattern strengthens again has dramatically slowed the fire down. Most of the smoke from the fire is drifting down into the Phoenix area.