The long evacuation of Pine and Strawberry came to an end as of 4 p.m., Sunday, June 27.
Residents had fled their homes in the face of the Backbone Fire on June 18.
That night, the fire blazed only 1.5 miles from Strawberry.
Wet weather, lower temperatures and lots of hard work allowed fire crews to contain 43% of the fire by June 27. They focused their efforts on securing lines around Pine and Strawberry, while keeping the fire from crossing the Verde River and threatening Camp Verde.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office would like to remind Pine and Strawberry residents they remain in “Set” status, however, as the fire could force another evacuation.
Highway closures remain in effect. State Route 87 is closed at milepost 270.5 north of Strawberry to Clints Well. State Route 260 is closed between Camp Verde and State Route 87.
For resident Lee Vullo it was an emotional return.
“Gee, but it’s great to be back home. Started to cry as I approached Payson seeing all the thank you signs ... really cried as I got closer to Pine again seeing more thank you signs and more tears closer to Strawberry especially seeing so many signs at Bandits (restaurant),” Vullo wrote on a Facebook page for Pine and Strawberry.
The Backbone Fire started from a dry lightning strike on June 16 near the Childs Power Plant in the Fossil Creek recreation area about two miles west of Pine. The rough and remote terrain limited access to the fire.
A historic drought has continued to grip the Southwest and coupled with extreme temperatures, single digit humidity and fuel moisture levels created conditions firefighters have never seen before.
Adding to the environmental challenges, the Southwest Area Wildland Fire Operations, which controls regional resources, struggled to fill the needs for Type 1 Incident Commander Alan Sinclair as 24 fires burned in the region.
Ultimately, support arrived from states from as far away as Kansas and Oregon.
Brush removal played a key role in controlling this fire, rather than back burns. During fire updates, Operation Section Chief Jason Coil explained the difficulties.
Back burns are one of the most powerful tools in the firefighter’s arsenal. When the fire front hits the charred brush, it dies down for lack of fuel. Weather, fuel conditions and lack of resources required crews to lean on brush removal instead of backfires to fight the Backbone.
The Forest Service brought in machines called masticators that chew up and chip the brush. Crews then cleaned up the debris along Highways 87 and 260 on the northern and eastern perimeters of the fire.
Drones fitted with infrared cameras allowed crews to find hot spots shifting winds could stir up to reignite the fire, said Coil on Sunday.
To secure Strawberry, crews trekked down the Bob Bear Trail to Fossil Creek to slow the spread of the fire up the canyon.
“They spent the night there,” said Coil.
Old, weak, and dead limbs from sycamores and cottonwoods threatened to fall on the crews as they hiked down the steep 1,500-foot trail.
“It requires a higher degree of caution,” said Coil.
But the crews created a line that has secured the perimeter of the fire.
Smoke from the nearby Rafael Fire “made it difficult for our spotter in the air to spot fire,” said Coil.
But crews persevered and the fire lines held, allowing the Gila County Sheriff’s Office to move Pine and Strawberry to “Set” status by the end of the weekend.
For resident Kim Valdez, it was “the ADOT signs saying ‘Welcome Back Pine and Strawberry’” that made her feel at home.
To celebrate, 18-year-old Daniel Marchant has asked residents to make a short video to thank the firefighters and first responders trying to save the communities.
“Thank firefighters for everything you have done, share a memory of what makes Pine special for you. Playing down by the creek. So many memories to save the community. Keep it short and sweet,” said Marchant.
Please send a video clip to: Danielmarchant35@gmail.com.
The community will have A Firefighter Appreciation and Patriot Parade on Fossil Creek Road starting at 10 a.m., Saturday, July 3 (meet in the Bandits restaurant parking lot at 10 a.m. — any vehicle welcomed).