The Woodbury Fire consumed 123,263 acres in two weeks, offering a grim illustration that a frightening fire may follow a wet winter.
The Woodbury started near Superior on June 8, but hot, windy weather and a rich spring growth of now dry grass drove it north and east. By June 13, officials ordered evacuations in the Roosevelt marina area.
But the fire turned east and as of June 25, residents could return to their homes.
“It’s 48 percent contained (as of June 25),” said Jason Richmond, a Forest Service public information officer.
But don’t look for an early monsoon to put the fire out.
The Southwest Coordination Center, in charge of firefighting resources and predicting the fire season conditions, has “some concerns about both a later than normal (monsoon) onset and less robust burst” than in past years.
The National Weather Service sees patterns setting up over the Pacific this week that could bring moisture, but not for another eight to 10 days at the earliest.
Regardless, Woodbury Fire officials hope to have the fire contained by July 15.
Already, firefighters have the southern edge of the Woodbury under control. Burn-out operations along Highways 188 and 88 have stopped the fire’s movement toward residential areas.
So far, no structures have been lost to the fire.
Winds continue to push the fire north and east, but cooler temperatures and calmer winds have slowed the progress, report fire officials.
Fire season weather
The prediction of an intense fire season at the lower elevations puts communities such as Payson more at risk of a wildfire. In the summer, prevailing winds drive fire up slope, a phenomenon the Woodbury illustrated.
Fire season analysts predicted an active fire season in Arizona’s lower elevations because the rain stopped earlier. Analysis also predicted the rains to last longer at the higher elevations. Up on the Mogollon Rim, rains continued into June. Flagstaff received snow in May.
“That’s a rare occurrence,” said Richmond.
Now, as the summer moves into July, wildflowers and green grass still cover the ground up on the Mogollon Rim.
In comparison, the non-native grasses of the lower elevations have dried out leaving quick-burning fuels.
The fuels of the Woodbury Fire include tall grass (up to 2.5 feet), brush (2 feet) and chaparral (6 feet).
Once they dry out, these fuels burn hotter and quicker than those in a fire-adapted ponderosa pine forest.
“The brush burns really rapidly, those fuels burn faster,” said Richmond.
Then critical fire weather fanned the flames with low humidity, high temperatures and strong winds.
“It warmed with the fronts that moved through,” said Richmond. “The high winds have really helped spread the fire.”
The cause of the Woodbury Fire remains unknown, but its location and behavior left firefighters little ability to fight the fire at its front.
“The biggest obstacle we had was the terrain — steep cliffs and mountain areas ... it is super steep,” said Richmond. “We couldn’t put firefighters on the ground.”
The Superstition Wilderness varies in elevation from 6,200 feet to 1,700 feet.
Steep narrow canyons, choked with brush line the slopes of the mountainous area.
“Once the fire got down into the chaparral and brush area, it made it spread a little quicker,” said Richmond,
A glance at the fire map shows amoeba-like tendrils snaking away from the ignition point of the fire near the town of Superior up toward Roosevelt Lake.
The prevailing winds spread the fire north and east forcing the fire commanders to shut down both Highways 188 and 88 said Richmond.
But the roads and the Salt River watershed offered a firm line of defense.
“So the decision was made to (do) work on protecting values at risk that they could. The back-firing was around those roads,” said Richmond. “They waited for the fire to get to an elevation to put boots on the ground.”
As with the Coldwater Fire near Clints Well on the Rim, fire officials used drones on the Woodbury.
“They have recently been using drones to fly the perimeter of the fire to look for fire,” said Richmond. “They have infra-red cameras, colored pictures and video. Drones go into areas where we couldn’t put boots on the ground.”
Drones have given, “the planning chiefs a better idea of what’s going on.”
With the spread of the fire to the east slowing down, Richmond said officials have reopened Hwy. 188 between Roosevelt Lake and Globe.
“They think they have good control of it now,” said Richmond, which allows the Type 1 incident team to start winding down and “making units available for other fires.”
But Rim Country has at least two more weeks of white knuckling it through another fire season.
The Tonto National Forest has declared Stage 1 fire restrictions. No shooting or campfires outside of designated campground fire rings.