Rough winds, low humidity and high temperatures fueled the Cave Creek Complex fire Tuesday, pushing it closer to communities in central Arizona.
"It’s the perfect storm for a fire," said Karen Takai, fire information officer. "Those three things create a very volatile, explosive fire."
The blaze, which began with lightning on June 21, has grown to more than 140,000 acres in a week. On Tuesday it became the state’s second largest wildfire in recorded history, surpassing last year’s 120,000-acre Willow fire near
"This is a historical event," said Jeff Whitney, incident commander for one of the two teams fighting the fire.
The fire moved within miles of some Arizona communities, devouring a large swath of wilderness and causing officials to put several rural towns on alert. The fire remained only 20 percent contained.
More than 1,300 firefighters battled the blaze, whose smoke could be seen from Camp Verde to Strawberry and Pine, a pair of tiny, tree-studded communities north of Payson.
On Tuesday, Valley residents could see more than plumes of smoke for the first time. People were calling authorities after seeing the glow of flames from loops 101, 202 and state Route 51, wildfire officials said. Flames could also be seen Tuesday night from Interstate 17 near Black Canyon City, the main route to northern Arizona.
Fire officials established a trigger point for Pine and Strawberry, which marks the point at which the towns will be evacuated if the fire reaches it.
The trigger point, Squaw Butte, is about 15 miles southwest of the communities. And the fire is about 12 miles southwest of Squaw Butte, and moving closer, said Dan Oltrogge, incident commander of one of two teams fighting the fires.
Oltrogge spoke to more than 100 members of the Camp Verde community Tuesday, updating them on the fire’s activity.
No trigger point has been established for the town, which is between 20 to 24 miles from the fire, he said. Still, crews plan to build fire lines between the town and the fire today.
Although the fire is closer to Camp Verde than it is to Pine and Strawberry, Oltrogge said winds blowing to the northeast made the two communities more of a concern.
"We do not have as much time in Pine and Strawberry," he said. "Our window is closing, so we need to get in there and get busy."
Residents of those communities began preparing for the worst as it was impossible to ignore the smoke that colored everything a sepia tone.
The towns set up an emergency preparedness task force at a fire station in Pine. Two of the group’s leaders reviewed evacuation plans and answered phones throughout the day. Task force chairman Arvid Thompson said he didn’t want the group’s activation to cause panic, but said residents of the area were already on edge.
Service station manager Mike Gorczyca said residents are apprehensive but don’t want to leave.
"We can’t really do anything about it," he said. "All I know is I’m going to go home and get my garden hose."
Meanwhile, in lower elevations, flames could be seen on a hill 12 miles east of Black Canyon City, an unincorporated community of about 4,000 residents.
Crews worked Tuesday to build defensible space around homes in the town and prepared to build a fire line halfway between Black Canyon City and the fire.
"I’m concerned," said Lorraine Mandeville of Black Canyon City, where the fire sent up thick gray smoke and crept down the New River Mountains toward the community. "I’m trying to gear myself up in case we have to evacuate."
The communities are the firefighters’ top priority, Whitney said.
Fire officials closed about 100 square miles of land between the Verde River and state Route 260 in the Coconino National Forest. Crews with the Mogollon Ranger District worked along the highway, reducing brush and grass to create a wider area the fire would have to jump.
The wind pushing the blaze north and northeast is not likely to let up anytime soon, said Mike Fowle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.
While winds that whipped faster than 35 mph at times Tuesday would decrease today and the next couple of days, he said, high temperatures and low humidity would continue for at least the next week. Monsoon thunderstorms may not start for another two weeks, he said.
The blaze also moved into the Pine Mountain Wilderness and into pine trees, worrying some officials that it could become a crown fire, which moves "faster than you can run," said Dave Killebrew, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.
More than 850 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has been divided into north and south zones. Two of 16 incident management teams in the country are fighting the fire.
Four teams fought the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona, which burned more than 460,000 acres to become the state’s largest wildfire in history.
Fire officials plan to meet at 6:30 p.m. today at Pine Cultural Hall, updating residents on the fire and the danger to their communities.
For more information, go to www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire.