The 50,494-acre Woodbury Fire continued to grow all week, with nearly 900 firefighters deployed to keep it from consuming scattered communities on the outskirts of the blaze.
Smoke drifted through the Tonto Basin, leaving a gray smear on satellite images most of the way to the Utah border. The fire was listed as 41 percent contained — although no longer an immediate threat to the communities of Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and Queen Valley. However, crews were bracing for critical fire weather Thursday and had issued a “set” notice for portions of Tonto Basin. This is the middle step in the “Ready, Set, Go” wildland fire action plan.
The National Park Service on Tuesday announced the indefinite closure of Tonto National Monument in the Tonto Basin as the fire moved toward Reavis Ranch in the Superstitions, still some 10 miles from the Tonto Basin itself.
Firefighters closed most of the Apache Trail between Roosevelt Lake and Apache Junction, although Roosevelt Lake itself remained accessible, along with the Lower Salt River and Saguaro Lake. Forest Service campgrounds east of Roosevelt Dam were closed Thursday.
The Tonto National Forest had already imposed fire restrictions, including a ban on almost all use of outdoor fires outside of firepits in established campgrounds as well as spark-producing activities like shooting. The restrictions underscore the now-dangerous condition of fuels throughout the region, as well as the strain on firefighters mobilized to fight the Woodbury Fire. That fire started on June 8 and spread rapidly through the lower-elevation chaparral and the now-dry grass nurtured by a wet winter.
Fortunately, other fires scattered throughout the state have already been largely contained, thanks to the earlier cool, wet conditions in the high country and aggressive management, which included setting thousands of acres of backfires.
The 16,790-acre Coldwater Fire that started on May 30 about four miles from Clints Well, is 90 percent contained. That fire helped thin the overgrown watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, Payson’s future water supply.
Firefighters also managed to contain the 7,470-acre Mountain Fire near Horseshoe Reservoir.
That leaves the still growing and unpredictable Woodbury Fire the biggest problem in the state.
Crews used helicopters to drop incendiary devices to start backfires this week to prevent the continued spread of the fire toward the popular Reavis Ranch area as well as habitat for the endangered Mexican spotted owl.
Heli-rappellers and Hotshot crews also dropped into Hewitt Ridge on June 8 to undertake burnout operations to keep the fire from moving toward vulnerable areas. The goal is to establish a continuous line to prevent the fire from spreading southwest toward state and private lands, as well as several communities.
On the fire’s north flank, retardant and water drops as well as heavy equipment were deployed to protect structures along State Highway 88. Crews are also working to protect regional power lines.
The weather that allowed the Forest Service to manage wildfires and even undertake prescribed burns in May have now given way to dry, dangerous conditions — which will last until the arrival of the monsoon.
The Woodbury Fire has grown even more intense as it has moved into brush, pinyons and junipers in higher elevations, turned to tinder by triple-digit temperatures.
Fortunately, winds have remained relatively mild — blowing at 8-10 miles an hour.
Crews hope they can use prevailing winds to set backfires to trap the fire within a charred perimeter. However, worsening fire weather leading into the weekend could kick the fire into ravenous growth again. The heat will dry out the air and kick up strong winds in the lower two miles of the atmosphere, raising the possibility of violent fire behavior as it moves into the thicker fuels at higher elevations, according to the daily summary of fire activity posted on InciWeb, the fire federal reporting and management website.