Windy conditions and rough terrain are making it difficult for firefighters to get a handle on the Sunflower Fire south of Payson.
The fire started Saturday morning and quickly spread, burning through 2,500 acres overnight.
As of Tuesday morning, the fire was at 4,600 acres and 5 percent containment.
While Hotshot crews wrestle to wrangle in the first large northern Gila County wildfire of the year, officials say they have kept the fire away from the Beeline Highway and any structures.
Meanwhile in Prescott, another fire has forced the evacuation of some 300 homes, one of four major fires burning statewide. That includes the nearby 700-acre Bull Flat Fire just south of Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery in the Pleasant Valley Ranger District in the Tonto National Forest. The fire has also burned onto the Fort Apache Reservation about 20 miles northwest of Cibecue. Yesterday, the fire was 35 percent contained. The 160 firefighters online Monday evening had the fire 45 percent contained, thanks to backfires along a nine-mile stretch of Forest Road 109.
But the biggest fire so far remains the Sunflower Fire, although it continues to burn away from the small community of Sunflower into steep slopes and rugged wilderness areas.
On the south end of the fire, the nearest home is more than a mile away in Sunflower, said Debbie Cress, spokesperson with the Arizona Central-West Type 2 Incident Management Team, which took over supervising the fire Sunday.
On Monday, steady winds from the northeast pushed the fire south, creating a large plume of smoke in the sky.
Officials are monitoring highway visibility, but so far, smoke has not forced the closure of the highway.
On the west side of the fire, flames are eating into the Mazatzal Wilderness.
Cress said firefighters on Monday focused on keeping the fire west of the Mount Peeley Road.
Initially, “our primary goal was to keep it away from Sunflower,” when the fire was backing down Sycamore Creek. Crews attacked that end of the blaze and it is nowhere near homes, she said. “We are feeling good about that.”
Officials are also happy with the number of wildland firefighters on scene. As of Tuesday morning, some 271 personnel were battling the blaze, with more firefighters and equipment on the way.
Nationally, Arizona is the hotbed for forest fires currently, which has drawn resources from other, still quiet states.
Compare that with last year when a number of wildfires broke out around the same time across the country and an incident management team from Montana was brought in for the Monument Fire in southern Arizona.
“There is not a lot of activity in the rest of the country,” Cress said, “which is advantageous for us and we have plenty of people.”
Helicopter and air tanker crews are using Payson’s airport as a base camp for refueling and supplies. The airport remains open, said Beth Myers, airport coordinator. The Aero Fair on May 19 has been canceled until next year, however, due to the fire activity, she said.
Besides the Sunflower Fire, there are three other wildfires burning in Arizona, including the Gladiator Fire, Bull Flat Fire and Elwood Fire.
Cress said the terrain is making the Sunflower Fire especially difficult to fight.
“I have hiked in there and it is incredibly steep,” she said. “The biggest challenge is trying to get around safely.”
How and where the fire started is still under investigation. Power lines in the area remain threatened, but are still energized.
Another, smaller fire south of Rye last week threatened power lines as well. A helium balloon caught in a power line was likely the cause of a brush fire south of Rye Wednesday.
Crews quickly extinguished the fire four miles down Old Rye Road, which splits off East Gisela Road just off Highway 87.
The fire was reportedly below a line of power lines near a creek and offered firefighters a taste of what was to come.
No one could predict how quickly fire season would come, said Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi. Two weeks ago at a Gila County Fire Chiefs Association dinner, a number of fire officials predicted this year could be one of the worst due to extra dry conditions. Most of Arizona has gotten only about 40 percent of its normal rainfall so far this year.
“(Fire season) probably happened a little faster than we figured,” deMasi said.
On Monday, deMasi went to Crown King to help on the Gladiator Fire.
That fire is currently at 1,500 acres with 0 percent containment.
The fire started Sunday and has already burned up two buildings and one trailer near the small mining town.
The Red Cross opened a shelter after fire officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of Crown King.
deMasi is one of eight fire chiefs around the state who recently underwent training to help facilitate communication during wildland fires.
After a number of communication issues last year, the Fire Chiefs Association and State Forestry Division decided a liaison was needed to help bridge the communication gap between a fire management team and local fire departments, deMasi said.
In eastern Arizona, the Elwood Fire has burned through 1,137 acres on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
There are more than 100 personnel working to contain the lightning-caused blaze.
As of Tuesday morning, the Elwood Fire was 5 percent contained.