GILA COUNTY — A week after the Bush Fire started, officials allowed most residents to return home this weekend after crews wrangled in a fire that had grown to nearly 200,000 acres — making it the fifth largest fire in the state’s history.
The fire was 42% contained Monday morning.
Fire officials Sunday night reported that hard-fought containment lines along State Routes 188 and 87 would hold.
Pointing to thick black lines on a map on the west and east sides of the fire, Ralph Lucas, with fire operations, said they show areas where there is little to no chance the fire can jump.
While Tonto Basin, Jakes Corner and Punkin Center residents were allowed to return home, officials warned that the fire would still be visible burning in the hills above the communities.
“If you are back in your home, you might see glowing embers,” Lucas said. “But we would not let you back if there was any risk.”
Sunflower residents could return home in the coming days depending on what the fire does, Lucas said.
The earliest officials said they would entertain reopening the Beeline Highway would be Tuesday. Some 300 firefighters were still using the road to access the fire on the west side Monday and they noted the roadway had sustained a lot of damage from the fire.
So what happens next?
Officials said it is not too soon to look at the lasting effects the fire will have on the landscape.
A Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team was scheduled to head out Monday to assess the damage. Alan Sinclair, incident commander for the type I team, said this work is very important.
The post fire effects of rain in this area have the potential to be very significant,” he said. “When a landscape loses vegetation, it increases the risk for runoff and flooding.”
He said the fire ran over several mountains, including Four Peaks and Mount Ord, which will impact water flow come the monsoon.
It was Mount Ord where crews had to complete one of the trickiest burns this weekend.
Lucas said the area had been “very problematic.” State Route 87 runs along the west side of Mount Ord. As it does, it passes through a narrow, steep canyon. Lucas said if the fire had pushed down toward the highway there was a high risk it would jump the roadway.
Using ground crews and helicopters, they set small fires on Mount Ord to bring the fire down slowly and at a low intensity so as not to jump the roadway.
Sinclair said that technical burn finished up Saturday. It is now one area in the black, meaning the containment line is strong.
Tom Torres, deputy forest supervisor with the Tonto National Forest, thanked the community for their patience and giving the firefighters the space they need to fight the fire. He said they were working to get the roads opened and for things to return to a sense of normal, but said it could be several more days.
While the type I incident management team continues to monitor closely the Bush Fire.
When asked how the community can help, Sinclair asked residents to follow fire restrictions. The Tonto National Forest is in Stage II fire restrictions, which means no open burning.
Lane said they were discussing closing the forest, but had made no decision.
“Our crews are getting tired,” Sinclair said. “Give us a hand and please follow fire restrictions.”