Arizona's Burning: Fire Season Is Here, Residents Near Payson Evacuated

More than 4,000 acres are burning near Payson.
More than 4,000 acres are burning near Payson. Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management

click to enlarge This photo taken from a YouTube video shot by Donald Ostrowski shows the Highline Fire from earlier this week, with a plane attempting to quell the burning. - DONALD OSTROWSKI/YOUTUBE.COM
This photo taken from a YouTube video shot by Donald Ostrowski shows the Highline Fire from earlier this week, with a plane attempting to quell the burning.
Donald Ostrowski/
Arizona Wildfires have burned or are burning a total area close to the size of Mesa.

And we are one day into monsoon season and still five days from the summer solstice, with near record heat predicted for next week.. Weather is one leg of a three-legged threat to safety, along with fuel loads and people.

Fire officials are tracking 16 major blazes, but only three of them are larger than 10,000 acres, and none has mushroomed into the monster fires that devastated many times that much scrub, forest and brush.

The biggest fire in Arizona history, the Wallow Fire, torched 538,000 acres, more than 840 square miles of the Apache National Forest near Alpine in 2011.

But a fire doesn’t have to be enormous to be deadly or destructive. The 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters and destroyed 129 homes. That started as a tiny, insignificant lightning strike and grew to an 8,500-acre conflagration.

With the anniversary of that fire just two weeks ago, residents of the Payson area were keenly aware of the threat when officials battling the Highline Fire 8 miles north of town declared a mandatory evacuation in some areas Thursday night.

More than 1,000 people are fighting the blaze, which began on June 10 and is 35 percent contained.

It was more a case of caution than concern in the La Cienega, Ellison Creek and Ellison Creek Estates areas, where Gila County Sheriff’s Office and other emergency crews went door-to-door through the neighborhood of around 60 mostly summer homes.

Only 15 people were home, and no one showed up at the Red Cross shelter at Payson High School to stay, said Colin Williams, regional communications officer for the non-profit. Three residents decided to stay put, he added.

“We are in limbo right now,” Williams said. “We’ll be in standby mode to see what happens.”

Here’s why: The blaze, which fused with the nearby Bear Fire, has consumed more than 4,000 acres, but remains uphill and upwind from homes during the day. At night, the fire “lays down” and has a better chance of creeping toward homes.

click to enlarge The Highline Fire near Payson forced many residents to evacuate their homes this week. - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE MANAGEMENT
The Highline Fire near Payson forced many residents to evacuate their homes this week.
Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management
Fire likes to climb. Wind, slope and dry fuel make that happen faster. For now, the fire is growing along the Mogollon Rim, and staying away from structures.

But that can change quickly.

The forecast next week calls for Valley temperatures to near record levels around 120 degrees. And with monsoon season upon us, that means gusty winds, more lightning strikes and violent downdrafts where cold air and warm moist air collide.

That’s what happened in Yarnell. A local storm shifted the winds and fire changed direction.

Such weather is predictable and seasonal, and a constant threat in Arizona high country this time of year.
Add to the concern: predictions about the vegetation.

Wildland fire experts, especially incident commanders, watch one particular number very closely. It’s called ERC, which stands for “energy release component.” It’s fire jargon for essentially how much combustible fuel is ready to burn, and the likelihood that it will.

It looks at the amount, dryness and density of vegetation to predict how intense a fire can get. Generally anything over 90 percent gives fire managers cause for concern.

On June 1, readings from the National Fuel Moisture Database showed four of 11 stations in the Apache-Stirgreaves National Forest above the 90-percent level. That’s the forest around Payson where the Highline Fire forced overnight evacuations.

It’s also a shape of things to come this summer.

Up until now, most of Arizona’s larger fires have been burning in the southeast part of the state. As monsoon season takes hold, that, predictably, is going to change.

“We’ll see more fires in northern Arizona,” said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. “We had fires in the southeast because storms moved in with dry lightning strikes. That moves to Payson.”

click to enlarge More than 4,000 acres are burning near Payson. - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE MANAGEMENT
More than 4,000 acres are burning near Payson.
Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management
Currently, a chain of three large fires is burning in the Rim Country forests.

There’s no guarantee they will stay away from homes and towns.

“Our concern is the next few days, with the excess heat warnings. It’s going to be a rough few days,” Davila said.

The National Weather Service calls for excessive heat through the weekend and into Monday and Tuesday.

Along the Rim, afternoon winds could pick up to 20 mph early next week. Fire managers look at one particular number here too. It’s called the Haines Index and it’s a measure of how turbulent the air near the ground can get. It predicts sudden shifts of wind, dangerous conditions for battling wildfires.

The NWS rates the Haines Index for the western part of the Rim at its highest level on Saturday and Monday.
Weather Service meteorologist Marvin Percha says that is likely to continue all week.

“It will be tough because every existing fire is prone to burn hotter and faster,” he said, calling a high Haines number “a venting mechanism for fires,” not unlike how a chimney acts to feed fresh oxygen into a fire.”

Percha said he’s confident that record temperatures will persist throughout the state, including Rim Country, all week. The chance of dry lightning strikes and downdrafts of air remains possible, but slight, he added.

Daytime humidity will drop to 5 percent where the Rim Country fires are burning.

It’s a dangerous blend of wind, fuel, heat and dryness. All are enemies of the wildland firefighter.

Up until now, Davila says, Arizona has witnessed a fairly typical year. To date, the state has seen 919 wildfires, compared to 921 a year ago. Slightly more acreage has burned.

As menacing as weather and fuel content are to fire safety, humans are a major hazard too.

People start nine wildfires in ten, in Arizona and nationally. The state has put out a “one spark is all it takes” campaign to spread the word that campfires, cigarette ends and working machinery near dry grass are all bad ideas.

It’s also a bad idea not to clear brush around your homes.

After the Yarnell Hill Fire, researchers found that only 11 percent of the homes there were adequately cleared to defend against fire. It worked. Of the 63 homes that did have sufficient “defensible space,” 60 survived. Almost all the homes that were lost were not properly prepared.

The state forestry department has provided more than $2 million in grants since 2016 to help fire departments and homeowners clear brush in 75 communities that have joined the “fire-wise” program. The money has helped in later fires.

Near Payson, grant money paid for the helicopter-carried water bladders used to drop water on flames in the Highline Fire. Last year, flames erupted east of Yarnell in the Tenderfoot Fire, but the state had paid to clear enough brush that the Tenderfoot Fire didn’t cause a heartbreaking repeat of events there.

When things do go wrong, as they did four years ago, evacuations are critical. For now, the system hasn’t been tested. At the time, call-back systems were ineffective, residents got false or conflicting information, dispatchers and fire managers struggled to define the boundaries of the call-back notice, not everyone signed up, and people didn’t see or hear door-to-door evacuation orders.

Some people barely escaped with their lives.

At the time, emergency call-back systems connected to only 85,000 Arizona residents outside Maricopa County. Only five other counties had, or were testing, countywide call-back systems. Gila County, were Payson sits, was not among them.

The Red Cross said it tried such as system Thursday night and it worked. But the real test may yet to come.

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Sean Holstege is a freelance reporter with a 30-year career in print news. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege