A fire that broke out north of Fountain Hills this weekend that is being driven by hot, dry and blustery conditions has shut down the Beeline Highway and led officials to evacuate Punkin Center and Tonto Basin residents.

The Bush Fire on the Tonto National Forest was at 14,371 acres as of Monday morning and 0% contained.

Fire officials say the fire is burning quickly through grass and brush into the Four Peaks Wilderness, northeast of State Highway 87.

The human-caused fire started Saturday near milepost 199 off State Route 87.

Because of the fire’s growth and movement, the communities of Punkin Center and Tonto Basin were asked to evacuate Monday morning.

“Residents should evacuate immediately to a shelter or with family/friends outside of the affected area. Residents should avoid close contact with those who are sick and should practice public health recommendations when relocating,” according to a release.

The American Red Cross has opened a shelter at the Lee Kornegay School, 4635 E. Ragus Road in Miami.

“Two strike teams, which consist of a total of 10 engines and two water tenders, are being ordered to provide structure protection to both communities,” said Anne Thomas, acting public affairs officer with the Forest Service.

The fire overnight Saturday grew to 7,745 acres and by Monday morning had again doubled in size.

Weather forecasts for the fire area continue to call for hot, dry and windy conditions, which will make it difficult for crews to stop the fire’s forward progression.

“Firefighters will continue full suppression tactics. Public and firefighter safety are top priority for suppression strategies on the Bush Fire,” she said.

A Type 2 Southwest Incident Management Team, led by Incident Commander Mark Bernal, took over command of the fire at 6 a.m. Monday.

Resources on the fire include 11 engines, three Hotshot crews, two helicopters, and one air attack. Multiple air tankers are available as needed. Firefighters and air support will continue to focus on building containment lines.

The Tonto National Forest is being assisted by the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Arizona Department of Transportation, Maricopa County Department of Transportation, Arizona Department of Public Safety, and SRP.

From Payson, Hellsgate and Pine-Strawberry fire departments have both sent crews to the Bush Fire. Hellsgate sent an engine and two career firefighters and two seasonal wildland firefighters, said Hellsgate Chief John Wisner.

“Crews report they are assigned to help hold the fire east of Highway 87 as it is moving north,” he said.

No structures have been damaged. Infrastructure protection for State Highway 87, power lines, private property, and sensitive recreation and heritage resources continue to be priorities for firefighting efforts.

Smoke will continue to be seen in Payson and the Valley, with heavy smoke affecting the Tonto Basin and Roosevelt Lake areas, along with recreation sites along the lower Salt River.

State Highway 87 is closed from State Highway 188 to the Bush Highway. Sugarloaf, Four Peaks, Lower Sycamore, The Rolls, Pobrecito, Butcher Jones, and Saguaro Del Norte recreation areas are all closed.

Elsewhere around the state, there are a number of wildfires burning.

Christopher-Kohls and Tonto Basin fire departments have both sent crews to help with the Bighorn Fire in Tucson.

The lightning-caused Bighorn Fire is burning in the Santa Catalina Mountains. It was at 13,200 acres and 22% contained Monday.

Also near Tucson, crews have contained the 3,300 acre Tortolita Fire.

Several other fires have started across the state in what promises to become a white-knuckle fire season — with hot, dry conditions and a late monsoon predicted in the next month.

The Blue River Fire on the San Carlos Apache Reservation was started by lightning on June 5 and as of Sunday had grown to 30,000 acres and is 85% contained.

The nearby Dry Lake Fire has burned about 4,300 acres and is being managed as part of the same incident. It was 81% as of Sunday.

InciWeb noted that “agencies throughout the Southwest have been experiencing dry and dangerous conditions with high temperatures and the concern for the COVID-19 pandemic, thus creating a complex situation.”

Meanwhile, the windy cold front has also complicated efforts to control the 4,800-acre Bringham Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, 22 miles north of Morenci.

Lightning sparked the fire on June 6 and winds from an in-rushing cold front fanned the flames and pushed it to the west.

However, the cooler temperatures also moderated fire behavior, despite the big drop in humidity in the colder air.

The Forest Service sent three Hotshot crews, 11 engines and three helicopters to battle the fire. The crews started by establishing fire lines and starting burnout operations along Highway 191, hoping to establish a line that will prevent the fire from moving further west.

The fire was at 14,625 acres and 5% contained as of Monday morning.

The 3,300-acre Range Fire near Florence has been fully contained.

The 25,000-acre Sawtooth Fire in the Superstition Mountains on the Tonto National Forest is now 85% contained.

The 1,000-acre Ocotillo Fire and the 1,400-acre East Desert Fire are both fully contained north of Cave Creek.

The 24,000-acre Mangum Fire burning north of the Grand Canyon is 2% contained.

A second day of red flag conditions, strong winds, and extremely active fire behavior Saturday pushed the Mangum Fire toward Jacob Lake. The fire crossed Highway 89A and continued to move northeast as the sun warmed. Structure protection crews, aided by intense application of retardant from air tankers, worked all day and into the night to strengthen the fuels reductions projects the local district previously accomplished around Jacob Lake.

The National Weather Service has predicted a hot, dry fire season and a delay in the onset of the wet monsoon. The recent stormy cold front, which brought lightning strikes but little moisture, illustrates the danger of a such a delay in the wet portion of the monsoon.

The Forest Service missed a season of controlled burns and thinning projects due to COVID-19 and the concern about fire and thinning crews gathering in camps during the pandemic.

The national fire season generally starts in the Southwest, with the danger greatest in June and early July. California and the Pacific Northwest go into peak fire season later.

Unfortunately, few communities in Rim Country or the White Mountains have adopted a wildland-urban interface (WUI) building codes or a firewise brush clearing ordinance.

The Gila County Emergency Operations call center is available for any questions or concerns at 928-402-8888.

Contact the editor at abechman@payson.com

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