A brush fire 20 miles south of Payson Wednesday night closed Highway 87 in both directions for hours as crews worked to stop flames from spreading into the forest.
The fire started just after 4 p.m. near the bottom of Slate Creek Hill, according to Payson Fire Battalion Chief Tom Fife. The fire appeared to start east of the northbound lanes, he said.
The Payson crew members battled the flames for half an hour by themselves with Forest Service crews busy on several lightning-sparked blazes northeast of town.
When Forest Service crews from the south arrived, the fire had spread to the median and further into the forest.
“It got pretty intense there for a while,” Fife said.
While firefighters battled to keep the fire under control, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Public Safety and Arizona Department of Transportation quickly closed the highway for firefighter safety. Officers redirected motorists southbound at the Highway 188 turnoff to Globe and northbound traffic at the top of Slate Creek.
On the fire line, flames ate through guardrail posts, charged across the median and into dry brush in the drainage.
Jason Cress, Forest Service assistant fire management officer in Tonto Basin, said there was a critical point when crews stopped the fire from advancing on the east and sparking a full-fledged forest fire.
“The potential there for that was good,” he said. “But with their training, they did a great job and caught it.”
At one point, command considered calling in for air support, but ground crews kept it under control without help from above.
Payson town limits
• Most types of fires prohibited.
• Smoking permitted as well the use of
Tonto National Forest
• No fires or campfires, charcoal, coal or
wood stoves anywhere, including
• No smoking, except within an enclosed
vehicle or building.
• No discharging a firearm, except while
on a hunt.
• No using an explosive.
• No operating a chainsaw or other
equipment powered by an internal
• No welding or operating acetylene or
other torch with an open flame.
• No fireworks, exploding targets and
incendiary devices are prohibited at all
Apache-Sitgreaves Fire bans lifted.
“All the air shows were cancelled,” Fife said.
Crews also didn’t need to tap into a new water bladder near Rye, but were thankful to have the option. The bladder stores water the fire trucks can pump out in an emergency. The county set up the bladder recently in the wake of a fire in a Rye salvage yard that burned through several homes. In fighting the Rye fire, 3,000-gallon pumper trucks had to return repeatedly to Payson to fill up.
The bladder holds 50,000 gallons and it is one of several the county received free from the military, according to Steve Stratton, county public works director.
Cress said the humidity and a light monsoon storm also worked in firefighters’ favor.
In all, the fire burned roughly four acres. It is unclear how the fire started, but it was likely human caused, officials said.
By 8 p.m., ADOT had reopened one lane in each direction and by midnight, all lanes.