Firefighters have mapped out a strategy to contain the Cave Creek Complex fire before it can destroy communities in Arizona’s high country.
The plan should save Pine, Strawberry and New River, and also keep the Agua Fria National Monument from going up in smoke, officials said Wednesday.
"I feel good," said Ed Armenta of the Tonto National Forest." I feel very confident that we’re going to keep this fire away from Strawberry and Pine."
However, the plan concedes that the lightning-caused fire, which started June 21, still will torch another 80 square miles — at least — of desert.
And one of the methods to save communities and the desert landscape will require a backburning operation that could close Interstate 17 near New River for an undetermined time during the busy July 4 weekend. Firefighters said the closure could come in days, adding it’s too early to know when it would start or how long it would last.
The fire had consumed 172,788 acres as of Wednesday evening. But it was 40 percent contained and its pace has slowed as winds calmed down, officials said.
The northern edge of the fire, which is six miles wide, remained the most problematic. It was sending up such a thick column of smoke, firefighters had difficulty tracking how fast it was moving.
"Nobody can tell you right now. It’s so smoky up there, not even the aircraft are able to see," said Forest Service spokesman Dave Killebrew.
Fire officials expected the fire to push closer to communities along the Mogollon Rim on Wednesday. It was probably stalling because heavy winter rain storms saturated the brush in the region, said fire spokesman James Clawson.
Despite the slower advance, the fire breached the Pine Mountain Wilderness on Wednesday, an area firefighters had hoped to protect a few days ago. The fire reached the edge of the area on Monday but did not cross.
Fire crews haven’t been able to fight the blaze’s northern edge in the Tonto National Forest because of the rugged terrain and the lack of access.
Instead, they are building a fire line along the Verde River they hope will hold the blaze. They plan to begin a fire along the river perhaps by Friday, and have it burn toward the existing fire. Even if that fire line fails, fire crews worked on other, last-ditch fire lines near Pine and Strawberry they hope will hold the fire later or allow for another backburning attempt.
Fire officials were more confident concerning three other fronts — on the west along I-17, on the south along New River, and on the east near Horseshoe Lake.
Firefighters plan to ignite backfires along all three fronts in the next several days.
On the western edge, crews are using bulldozers and hand shovels to conduct a fire line along Bloody Basin Road and Forest Service Road 14.
The line continues south along the Forest Service road to the edge of the 2,800-acre Lousy fire, which was contained Saturday. From that point, the line will continue south along Squaw Creek and eventually along I-17.
"When conditions are right, and I don’t know when that will be, we can burn out the fuels that remain," said Forest Service spokesman Tom Berglund.
Crews will wait until the wildfire is within a mile or two of the fire line before lighting backfires. The strategy is to keep the backfires small enough to control as they move toward the wildfire.
Together, the wildfire and backfires along the western and southern fronts will burn 50,000 to 75,000 acres of desert, officials said.
As recently as Tuesday, fire commanders had hoped to save the western slopes of the New River mountain range. But they conceded that land — more than 60 square miles — to the flames.
The fire’s eastern edge may take longer to contain.
Helicopters dumped water and fire retardant to stop the flames at Bloody Basin Road and the Verde River on Wednesday to slow the fire, which jumped a middle portion of the road late Sunday.
"We’re not putting people in here because of our concern that it’s so hard to get to that we’re afraid people can get trapped," Berglund said. "So this is our airshow. We’re hitting this real
The fire nearly certainly will burn to the western edges of the Verde River and Horseshoe Lake, officials said.
The scene in Pine and Strawberry was tense Wednesday, even as firefighters told 400 people who crammed into a community center in Pine that the fire danger to their mountain communities had lessened. The Rodeo-Chediski fire three years ago was more of a threat to the communities than the Cave Creek Complex fire was, at least as of Wednesday, firefighters said.
While fire officials remained optimistic, anybody who ventured outside could easily see and smell the approaching menace.
Smoke filled the sky in the communities and cast an orange glow on everything. White ash fell on cars parked along the rustic diners and gift shops that line the main highway through the communities, state Route 87.
Residents mostly overlooked all that, confident in what firefighters were saying about a fire that was still about 25 miles away.
The calm is partly due to the destructive forest fires of the last several years. Residents learned how to safeguard their homes, and how to evacuate if needed.
"They’ve lived with it the last few years," said Betty Englund, a northeast Phoenix resident who was spending a week at a family cabin in Pine.
Though Englund pointed to the orange glow and smoke coming from a mountain and called it "scary," she said residents were mostly calm. She hadn’t lost any sleep over the threat or made any efforts to evacuate.
"We’re not going to sit around and worry," Englund said.
At an outdoor community meeting in Black Canyon City on Wednesday, residents asked fire officials how close the fire was and if they would need to evacuate.
"I know it looks close, but we’re getting the fire down to where we can work with it," said Bill Van Bruggen, deputy incident commander of one of the teams battling the blaze.
"We want to meet it on our own terms," Van Bruggen said as the fire smoldered behind him, creeping within seven miles of the unincorporated town of 4,000.
Crews worked Wednesday to build a fire line north of Black Canyon City near a power line. The plan is to continue building the line until it reaches Table Mesa Road south of the city, and to keep the wildfire away from homes, Van Bruggen said.
More than 250 worried Black Canyon City residents attended the meeting.
"I’ve been calling in sick to work to protect myself," said resident Greg Watts before the meeting. "I’m worried about an ember blowing and catching the desert behind me."
The Grand Canyon Council of the Boy Scouts of America wanted to make it clear that Camp Geronimo and R-C Scout Ranch near Payson are not in danger from fire. The camp management contacts officials daily and have plans ready if evacuation is necessary.
Wednesday: The fire became less of a threat to Strawberry and Pine but firefighters conceded large areas of desert near New River to the blaze.
Today: Crews will continue to build fire lines near the Verde River and near New River, hoping to keep the fire from reaching those communities.
Friday and the weekend: Crews will light fires in critical areas, such as the Verde River, that will put even more smoke in the air.