A packed crowd alarmed by a week of smoke and fear heaved a collective sigh Wednesday night in Heber-Overgaard after fire officials assured them that the 12,000-acre Poco Fire is still more than 20 miles away from the community of 3,000.
However, the fire continues to grow and spew smoke, which could affect breathing and health.
The probably human-caused fire continues to grow, but officials say fire lines are holding and crews are setting back fires to protect Rim communities, including Young just six miles south of the fire — which has mostly moved north and east.
The blaze started the afternoon of June 14 just off the Young Road, in a horseshoe bend of the road, not popular for camping or recreation, said Dave Bales, incident commander trainee with the Northern Arizona Incident Management Team.
Fire investigators have not determined a cause for the fire, which has already cost $6 million to fight.
A local Hotshot crew initially attacked the blaze for several hours, but the fire got away from them, driven by hot, gusty winds.
The extreme terrain made it nearly impossible for crews to get out in front of the blaze.
“It is some of the roughest country in the state of Arizona,” Bales said to a crowd of more than 400 at the Mogollon High School in Heber.
Already, several firefighters have been injured; one suffering a broken leg when a tree limb landed on his leg, another getting a burn to the neck and others suffering minor bumps and bruises.
More than 700 firefighters from 12 states are working the fire with the assistance of 18 water tenders, four dozers, 22 engines and several helicopters.
A large DC-10 jet has also been making 11,000-gallon retardant drops, buying firefighters more time as they build fire lines.
Ironically, September’s Bluff Fire may prove an ace in the hole for crews. The Poco Fire has burned into that charred area, which forms a natural fire break. Moreover, the Poco Fire hasn’t threatened any structures.
“When we got in place, our strategy was instead of putting folks in the steepest, ruggedest terrain, we tried to set a big perimeter around it and set back fires — putting fire out with fire,” Bales said.
Officials are using several Forest Service roads as containment lines. The biggest danger now lies in the chance the fire will hop over Forest Road 411, officials say. That could trigger the evacuation of communities just south of Highway 260, said Punky Moore, public information officers with the incident team.
A number of residents expressed concern the fire will affect Heber-Overgaard. Bales said the town sits 20 miles northeast of the fire as a crow flies, putting it far enough away for now.
However, Bales said he understood residents’ concerns, especially when a large plume of smoke hovered over the town Tuesday.
The smoke spiked particulate monitors briefly.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has temporarily set up a portable air quality-monitoring device in Heber-Overgaard to provide hourly readings of microscopic particles that have the greatest impact on human health, said Byron James, with the ADEQ.
As of Friday morning, the air quality index had returned to “good.”
Bales said the fire’s growth to the east generated the smoke plume. Fire crews started burnouts, but as the fire approached “it was pretty scary for our crews to be out in front of that if you can imagine,” Bales said.
On Thursday, crews continued to hold and improve existing fire lines on the north, east and south sides of the fire.
On the southwest side of the fire on Forest Road 857, firefighters extended and reinforced fire lines by continuing burnout operations.
A set of large power lines owned by Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project that feed Tucson and the Valley that were shut off after the fire made its way underneath have been re-energized.
One thing that has not been recharged yet is Haigler Creek. Crews are taking lots of water from the creek to help fill air tankers.
One resident at Wednesday’s meeting noted the creek was running just a few days ago, but is now dry.
Fire officials said the creek should replenish itself quickly.
Bales said the water is desperately needed to fight a fire burning in some of the driest fuel conditions he has ever seen.
“I have never seen fuels this dry,” he said.
Matt Reidy, incident commander, asked firefighters to “stay focused on the task at hand and safely accomplish the mission.”
That includes protecting the town of Young. Crews are confident they can hold the fire by using existing roadways if it creeps closer, Bales said.