SEDONA — The threat that a wildfire burning above Oak Creek Canyon could break loose and march toward Flagstaff has fire crews flocking to the steep canyons north of here to battle the blaze that burned 1,500 acres by Monday night.
The Brins fire has been was designated as the top fire priority in the nation, a recognition of its volatility, the danger it could pose to populated areas and the unique geographic features of the area, said Gary Roberts, a fire information officer for the Northern Arizona Incident Management Team.
The fire, and the dry conditions fueling it, will close the Coconino National Forest on Friday morning. And fire officials told residents in many small communities south of Flagstaff to prepare for evacuation in case conditions worsen.
The fire began early Sunday afternoon when a campfire got out of control. By Monday, a thick pillar of dark smoke had risen from the heart of the plateau that overlooks Sedona and the popular Slide Rock State Park. Although trails of smoke crept up narrow crevices in the steep rock cliffs on the southwest side of Wilson Mountain, about two miles north of Sedona, the fire was concentrated mostly on the mountain top.
After dark, pockets of flame could be seen from Sedona, flickering on the mountain.
A Type 1 team of firefighters, designated by the Forest Service to handle the most difficult and dangerous blazes, is to arrive here today, Roberts said. More than 450 firefighters were battling the blaze Monday. They were aided by four fixed-wing air tankers and eight helicopters that made regular passes over the plateau throughout the day.
The tankers concentrated on the core of the fire on the mountain top, while helicopters fought to keep the blaze from trickling down the sharp narrow canyons on the mountain's east side.
On Monday night, the Brins fire was considered 5 percent contained as it crept toward Oak Creek. Although the sheer cliffs east of Wilson Mountain made it difficult for crews to build containment lines, the terrain also aided firefighters, creating natural breaks between flames and dried vegetation in the canyon, said Joe Reinarz, incident commander at the scene.
"That fire has been slowly rolling down the hill," Reinarz said. He noted some spot fires have ignited near the bottom of the canyon as embers and burning debris fell. "What we're trying to do is keep it from rolling all the way down the hill and turning back up."
The biggest concern is that winds will kick up, he said.
Firefighters and forest health experts have long feared a runaway wildfire in Oak Creek Canyon, 20 miles southwest of Flagstaff. The combination of steep cliffs, rugged landscape, dense forests and southwest winds could push a blaze directly into heavily wooded areas on the outskirts of Flagstaff, and potentially into the city, foresters and researchers warned in assessments after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire blackened a half-million acres in eastern Arizona four years ago.
Over the last several years, authorities have made efforts to thin the forests south of Flagstaff, as crews cut dense thickets of small trees and conducted controlled burns, said Connie Birkland of the Coconino National Forest.
While she didn't know how much land was thinned between Oak Creek and Flagstaff, she said recent thinning projects on the Coconino have averaged about 9,500 acres annually.
Gary Johnson of the Sedona Fire District, which provides regional fire protection, said at this point Flagstaff is not in danger. That could change if the fire jumps the canyon and starts burning up the cliffs, he said.
The wooded areas that lead in to Flagstaff are visible at the ridgeline above Oak Creek.
The Brins fire started when a campfire at a transient camp in the area apparently got out of control about 1:30 p.m. Monday, according to Jacqueline Denk of the Forest Service. No additional information on who may have caused it was available.
Early estimates pegged the fire's destruction at 3,000 acres, but the figure was revised to after more accurate assessments were made in daylight, she said.
The fire prompted evacuations of about 430 homes and 40 businesses along Oak Creek, but officials are unsure how many people are affected because the area is dotted with vacation cottages. Robert Reninger of the Red Cross estimated that 65 people checked in to the agency's evacuation center at an elementary school in Sedona. Seven spent the night Monday, and another six stayed at an evacuation center in Flagstaff, he said.
Hraefn Wulfson, an artist living in Oak Creek, said he got the evacuation notice about 5 p.m. Sunday. He heard the local alarm sound, warning residents to evacuate. But many didn't hear it, he said, and soon authorities were in the area, telling people to get out.
Wulfson, 37, said he had to break off an Internet chat with friends: "Can't talk. Fleeing," he jotted as he gathered up his cat, Wolfgang, laptop and sketches.
Wulfson said he stayed with friends in Camp Verde Sunday but may stay elsewhere this week; his friends own a wolf-mix dog that might conflict with Wolfgang.
The fire is drifting into ravines in some areas. But for the most part, it's roiling on the Wilson Mountain plateau, Reinarz said.
Crews had gained control of the southwestern corner of the fire, and spent Monday building fire breaks along the northern and southern edges, and inside Oak Creek Canyon. The rocky terrain makes it difficult to get close to the flames from the ground, Reinarz said.
Should the fire run past Oak Creek, crews will try to stop it at several narrow bands of thinned forest, said Steve Gatewood, director of the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership. The recently treated forest areas are key to protecting northern Arizona's larger communities from all but the most severe fires.
"We probably will be able to stop it," Gatewood said. "We probably would not have been able to stop it under any conditions five years ago."
But smaller communities are at risk, and acres of forest still pose a huge risk because they're overgrown, he said.
"Until we get another 10, 15 years of restoration in these forests, we're going to be dodging bullets every time a fire gets going," Gatewood said.
Last week's Woody fire west of Flagstaff demonstrates the value of treating forests, Flagstaff Battalion Chief Bob Orrill said. The fire ripped through the crowns of trees in an overgrown forest and crossed a section of Interstate 40. But it reached a treated area and crews quickly put it out.
"The fire behavior is so different where the treatments have been done," Orrill said.
400 Homes evacuated
START: Sunday June 18
CAUSE: Human-caused; campfire from suspected transients
FUELS: Brush, grass, Ponderosa pine
EQUIPMENT: 31 fire engines, 4 water tenders AIR SUPPORT: 4 air tankers, 8 helicopters
CREWS: Eight Type 1 (Hotshot) crews; three Type 2 crews
DAMAGE: No structures damaged
EVACUATIONS: About 400 homes; number of people unknown because many are vacation homes. Oak Creek Canyon from Midgely Bridge to the fish hatchery in Sterling Canyon (this includes homes, businesses and Forest Service campgrounds). North end of Soldiers Pass Road (everything north of Casa Contenta). Upper part of Jordan Road (everything north of Navahopi)
ROAD CLOSURES: U.S. Highway 89A is closed through Oak Creek Canyon.
WHO'S FIGHTING THE FIRE:The most elite response team will battle the blaze today. Called a Type I incident management team, the crew is trained to deal with the most risky, complex problems: wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other disasters. Several of these teams responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Seventeen such crews exist in the nation; two are stationed in the Southwest. They typically include at least 500 people.
WHO TO CONTACT: The state has activated a special information line on evacuations, road closures and shelters. Dial 211 to hear updates or to speak with an operator. Or call 1 (888) 468-6211 or visit www.az211.gov for information.
• Coconino National Forest will close at 8 a.m. Friday because of extreme fire danger. All recreational areas in the 1.8-million-acre forest will be off limits at that point.
• The Federal Emergency Management Agency released funds for the effort. FEMA will pay up to 75 percent of firefighting costs. This is the fourth Arizona fire this year to get FEMA money.
• State environmental officials are checking air quality in Sedona, Kachina Village and south Flagstaff. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality will issue warnings if the smoke becomes a risk to various areas.
• Coconino County warned residents in several areas to prepare for evacuation just in case. The emergency preparedness advisory affects Kachina Village, Mountainaire, Munds Park/Pinewood, Forest Highlands, Mountain Dell, Pine Del and surrounding areas. Residents were told to have plans and important belongings ready so they can leave quickly.