On a windy, red-flag wildfire warning day, a swirling ember from a cigarette left in an ashtray set fire to a manufactured home on Elm Street in Payson. A few hours later, quick action by the fire department kept a brush fire in a vacant lot from spreading to adjacent homes.
The first fire consumed the manufactured home, but Payson fire and police, Hellsgate fire and the Forest Service kept the flames from spreading after a 45-minute battle.
Witnesses said they could see smoke from all over town. From Highway 87, the plume of ash-colored smoke billowed into the sky. The sight drew looky-loos that quickly left when the smoke covered them. More disturbing on a red flag day, the wind spread the smell of the fire for miles.
Resident Samantha Ponczak Wright arrived at the scene with the first responders. She snapped a few shots and watched a tree go up in smoke.
“I got there the same time the fire truck did,” she wrote in an e-mail, “That tree went up so quick, it was crazy — live tree — poof, gone.”
Payson Police Detective Matt VanCamp said smoke from house fires is particularly toxic because of melting plastics and other household items.
Fire Marshal Bob Lockhart said a neighbor confirmed the cause of the fire.
“Mrs. Osori said her (the owner of the home) waste receptacle and chair were on fire,” said Lockhart.
Osori’s daughter Ana described the neighbor. “There’s a little old lady with a Chihuahua and she walks with a cane,” said Ana.
She said the Osoris had left to shop at a nearby store and saw a little fire at first, which they thought was a barbecue. By the time they returned, the fire raged out of control.
Ana said her father came rushing out of their home telling them the firemen had demanded their evacuation. Ana and her relatives were relieved to see that the lady’s car was not in the driveway, but she worried about the little dog.
“The car was not here, so probably she was not here at the house, but I don’t know about the dog,” she said.
Later, Lockhart confirmed that firemen had rescued the dog from the back yard.
Because of the dangerous conditions, firefighters warned neighbors they might have to evacuate.
On the other side of the street at Elm and Colcord, Jeremy Guyer was on his way back to work at SmartSystems after eating lunch when police told him to prepare to evacuate.
“The policeman said get ready — you might have to evacuate and I said, ‘How?’” he pointed to the blocked off street full of fire engines, police cars, Forest Service vehicles and gawkers.
Guyer’s friend John Hatch was one such gawker. He got a better look than most, but learned good seats have their drawbacks. As he walked past Guyer’s house he saw flames. He jumped up on Guyer’s roof to get a better look.
“I saw a bunch of smoke while I was walking down the street and flames shooting in the air a little,” he said.
Guyer saw even more.
“The tree next to the house had flames in it,” said Guyer.
As the flames died down, he discovered going up was a whole lot easier than getting down.
“I need a ladder,” he said looking hopefully at the firemen. They were too busy to help.
“Hey, don’t firemen get cats out of trees? I bet they could help you,” said Guyer.
The two continued to seek a solution to Hatch’s dilemma as emergency personal wrapped up their work.
On a red-flag day, winds and single-digit relative humidity numbers combine to create lethal conditions prompting officials to take swift action.
The little old lady’s house lies in ruins, said Lockhart.
“They tore it down before we left,” he said.
Support for the owner is on its way. Brian Gomez from the American Red Cross Grand Canyon Chapter said local volunteers had already made contact with the owner and had clothes, a hotel room and a debit card with enough money for a week’s worth of food. “We will be providing the full services,” he said, “Food, clothing and shelter, in this case a night in a hotel.”
Gomez said the purpose of the Red Cross is to triage the situation for the immediate term. He said the victim of the fire will need to find more support as time goes on.
Lockhart said the neighbors were already rallying to support the owner.
“She has close friends in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a traumatic event, but she has a support system.”
The second fire of the day in Payson proved far more benign — but still dangerous.
A passerby reported seeing smoke rising from a pile of wood in a vacant lot off Aero Drive, not far from the highway. When fire crews arrived moments later, they found three children with plastic buckets of water trying to put the fire out.
Crews took over and quickly doused the flames, which hadn’t had time to spread far.
Fire Chief Marty deMasi on his last day on the job and two more fires to his credit, said the cause of the brush fire is “under investigation.”