As wildland firefighters worked to set fire lines on the Sunflower Fire Thursday, strong winds and low humidity today and into this weekend are threatening to push the fire farther up Mount Peeley.
Still, officials say Payson is not at risk and the Gila County Sheriff’s Office has no plans to order an evacuation. Smoke from the fire is expected to linger through town for some time, however, raising concerns for residents with health issues.
“The reality is this fire is going to be here burning for several weeks in some level or another and smoke is going to continue to be an issue,” said Curtis Heaton, incident commander in training.
Some smoke from the 20-mile-distant blaze grew so thick in Payson at times this week that residents flooded the Payson fire marshal’s office with calls wondering whether he was going to order an evacuation.
Heaton is stationed just east of Fountain Hills with several dozen more support staff with the Central West Zone Incident Management Team. A tent city of sorts has sprung up at the Fort McDowell Fair and Rodeo Grounds with tents, semi trucks and mobile command units sprawled across several, dusty acres. Everything is designed to support the more than 400 firefighters on the line battling rugged terrain, extreme temperatures and 100-foot flames.
As of Thursday night, infrared cameras put the fire at nearly 14,500 acres, with 15 percent containment.
Wildland firefighters have been working around the clock since Mother’s Day to get a hold on the fire, currently the largest in Arizona.
“It is steep, rocky, nasty country in 100-degree temperatures — it is not an easy task for our crews,” Heaton said.
While officials would like to see a solid fire line around the fire, it has been nearly impossible given the rough terrain.
“If we could build a fire line around the fire we would have done it a week ago,” he said. “By no means are we just letting it burn. Our goal is to fully suppress this fire.”
Drought conditions and significant winds have made it challenging for crews. Although firefighters hit both the Sunflower Fire and the 8,166-acre Gladiator Fire near Crown King soon after they were spotted, both fires easily spread in the dry fuels. Crews are also fighting the 2,145-acre Bull Flat Fire just nine miles from Young.
On the Sunflower Fire, crews don’t expect full containment for several weeks and say the fire won’t be fully “out” until monsoon season hits.
For now, crews have concentrated on holding the fire back from Highway 87, the small community of Sunflower and power lines vital to the Valley.
Those efforts have been successful with a wide, 10-mile long fire line established on the east side of the blaze.
On the other side of the fire, flames have been stopped by the after-effects of the 1995 Basin Fire to the west. The 2004 Willow Fire to the northeast created a natural fuel break. When the fire reaches those areas, it runs out of fuel, Heaton said.
“Even though the Willow Fire burned very intense and it was a large, long-duration fire, there is still vegetation that could burn and because of that the old Willow Fire burn (areas) have the potential to carry fire,” he said.
Crews are having a difficult time fighting the north end of the fire due to the steep terrain and smoke, obscuring helicopter visibility. On Thursday, officials let the blaze work up the 7,500-foot Mount Peeley as crews worked to set a fire line on the ridge.
Officials believe the line will hold the fire from spreading north toward Payson, although they say wildfires remain unpredictable.
“The fire is running up toward (Mount Peeley) and it is too much fire that we can’t go direct on it,” he said. “We are unable to get any engines in and the only way for us to get water in is with helicopters and it is currently smoked in, so basically you got a guy with a shovel and 50- to 100-foot flames.”
“The worst case scenario is the monsoons don’t show up and the winds blow every day and we have another large fire.”
While several Hotshot crews work the north end of the fire, several more are working south near Highway 87.
Firefighters Wednesday started a burn out to keep the fire from spreading onto the Cross F Ranch. Those efforts have been successful and no structures are threatened.
“One of the big things that happens in this line of work is the idea of initiative, marinating the initiative and we got the initiative on the south end and we have been waiting for a few days to get that because the fire has been really pushing us around.”
Firefighters are also working to keep the fire from a set of power lines. On Thursday, the fire was only half a mile away from the power lines.
The west side of the fire, toward Bartlett Lake, has gone out largely thanks to the Basin Fire.
Investigators have yet to announce a cause for the fire. The origin of the blaze appears to be off Forest Road 25 toward the south end by Sunflower.
Fire commander Bea Day said she is happy with the progress crews have made.
“We want to go in there and do what we have to do to get out as soon as we can,” she said.
When the afternoon winds pick up, however, officials nervously wait to see what the fire does next.
“Every afternoon it is pins and needles for us,” Heaton said. “We are seeing the kind of fire behavior like we saw last year and there is no room for error, there is no margin for error, so when in doubt we take the conservative approach for firefighter safety, but we are also being as aggressive as we can.”