As quarter size ash fell from the sky, Mike Reichling with the Pine-Strawberry Fire District and other officials worked quickly to evacuate Roosevelt Lake area residents Thursday, the Woodbury Fire burning just over the mountains to the south.
The fire started June 8, five miles northwest of Superior, and in the past two weeks has rapidly headed toward Roosevelt Lake, ferociously eating up 112,899 acres. Just Thursday, the fire grew some 15,500 acres with high winds driving it north.
“The fire came over the ridge Wednesday night,” said Steve Holt, Tonto Basin Fire chief. “I could see the flames from Butcher Hook. It’s moving very, very fast.”
A huge plume of smoke hung over the communities east of Roosevelt Dam, casting an ominous yellow glow.
Lt. Tim Scott, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, radioed commands from an empty restaurant where a makeshift command center had been set up.
After warning residents earlier in the week to prepare to evacuate, word came Thursday afternoon to leave the area.
Reichling, who arrived around 10 a.m. Thursday, said the scene was “intense.”
“The wind was blowing right towards the lake from the south,” he said. “Ash the size of quarters was falling on us.”
Reichling assisted the GCSO and Tonto Basin Fire Department as they went door to door to speak with residents.
“Most people knew the evacuation order was coming,” he said after the county sent out a message through Everbridge Wednesday.
So me 400 people, including those camping at Roosevelt Lake and local residents, safely evacuated. Several people refused to leave their property, Scott said.
Eight people needed assistance leaving and were taken to the shelter in Miami by bus, said Steve Holt, Tonto Basin Fire chief. Crews had been canvassing the area for several days prior to identify anyone who might need help getting to the temporary shelter.
“Everything from 88 junction to 288 junction on both sides of the road are evacuated,” said Holt. “We’re going to continue to man our station in Roosevelt. We don’t know how many have refused to leave, there’s always some. If they refuse to leave they have to sign a waiver and they’re on their own.”
Reichling said many residents had already left by Thursday and those still behind were packing up to leave.
Others were figuring out how to move their pets and toys.
“We had people with one truck and two boats,” he said.
Ranchers who couldn’t get their livestock out were advised to paint their phone number on their animals.
Officials hung a white ribbon on the door of vacant homes.
“Everyone was pretty willing to go,” Reichling said. “They understood. When you looked up and saw that smoke, it was pretty convincing.”
For years, Rim Country fire officials have warned residents it won’t be a wall of flames that overtakes the community, but embers that drift miles from the front, carried by the winds. Those embers will land on homes and yards and start spot fires. If not caught in time, a fire can jump from home to home and eat up a whole neighborhood.
That is why officials push Firewise principles — clean up a yard of debris and vegetation, trim up trees and cover eaves with screens to help prevent an ember from igniting a fire.
Reichling said there was a spot fire from a falling ember off State Route 188 Thursday.
Dozens of crews were out Thursday building lines and conducting burnouts. Crews have laid hose out to protect homes at Top of the World and the Roosevelt area.
“They have their hands full,” he said.
As of Monday, there were some 900 personnel on the fire.
The GCSO has officers patrolling the evacuated neighborhoods to prevent looting, Scott said.
Scott said the last time he saw his patrol vehicle covered in a layer of ash was during the Willow Fire in 2004. That fire charred nearly 120,000 acres and came within four miles of Payson.
“Depending on what happens, hopefully it won’t run through there,” Scott said of Roosevelt.
“Subdivisions on the fire side of the highway are hard to protect, especially those up the mountain,” Holt said. “If it jumps up there, we’ll lose that whole (Quail Run) subdivision.”
On Thursday, rows of white plastic ribbon fluttered in the breeze. The Roosevelt area subdivision Lakeview Estates sat deserted except for one man who stood outside his home.
“I’m going to stay for a while,” said resident Billy Sickmon. He had a blue ribbon on his lamppost, indicating he had not left.
“I don’t think it’s coming here,” he said. “I drove up through Superior today and watched it from both sides. It’s moving east pretty fast. I’m all prepared to leave if I have to. I’m watching, if it gets close I’m out.”
Sickmon said he helped others get five boats out of the area. He and his puppy planned to hang out and see what happened.