Wildfire creeps toward evacuated mountain town

SAFFORD, Ariz.

(AP) – Even as firefighters using slurry bombers and bulldozers managed to beat back flames threatening a mountaintop observatory, the wildfire began licking at the edges of a mountain community.

The lightning-sparked fire in southeastern Arizona grew to 8,550 acres by Monday, officials said, and was burning a few miles from the town of Turkey Flat, which has 74 cabins.

Fire officials said flames could reach the town by today.

Shenoa Greywolf said the surrounding Mount Graham is sacred to her and her husband, who are both American Indians.

"I'm crying and praying everyday," she said.

"Mount Graham is my backyard."

At a meeting Monday night, Dan Oltrogge, an incident commander for the team fighting the fire, tried to calm the community's fears but spoke frankly about strategy.

"It's doubtful that if the fire approaches that I would put firefighters in there," he said.

The wildfire, along with a nearby 7,810-acre blaze, prompted the evacuation of a $200 million-plus observatory and about 90 cabins on Mount Graham on Friday.

Oltrogge said that the fires were not expected to join as previously predicted.

Richard Lines, 59, has owned his Turkey Flat cabin for the past 25 years.

Although he's worried about his summer home, Lines said nothing is worth more than a human life.

"I don't want anyone's life put in jeopardy because of my cabin," he said.

"Everything is replaceable, but a life is not."

On Monday, authorities escorted some cabin owners to Turkey Flat so they could collect belongings.

"I can't hardly stand it to think there's a fire up there," said Verna Colvin, whose family owns a cabin in Turkey Flat.

"It won't be the same if it burns up.

It's like my life is going."

Firefighters managed to widen a defensive ring around the Mount Graham International Observatory on Monday.

Researchers from around the world use the observatory, which is an extension of the University of Arizona.

It encompasses eight buildings and 8-1/2 acres of pine forest on Mount Graham's 10,470-foot Emerald Peak.

It is surrounded by a 200-foot-wide clearing and has a sprinkler system that officials said would be turned on if flames came within a quarter-mile.

Pruett Small, a fire official, has said that even if the building doesn't burn, the smoke and heat could damage the delicate instruments inside.

Brent Wachter, a meteorologist in Albuquerque, N.M., said smoldering embers swept up in the unstable air around the wildfires threatened to complicate matters Tuesday.

"Just like bullets in a gun, they're going to go off," he said.

The U.S.

Forest Service has sent tanker planes to help Arizona.

The planes, former Navy P-3 Orions, arrived Sunday, two days after federal officials said the aircraft's private operator had demonstrated they are safe to fly, said Ken Frederick, a fire information officer.

Air tankers return to service in Arizona

PRESCOTT – Two large air tankers that had been grounded over safety concerns were back fighting wildfires in Arizona on Monday, a Forest Service spokesman said.

The planes, former Navy P-3 Orions, dropped retardant to help firefighters battling large wildfires near Payson and Safford, officials said.

The planes arrived in Arizona on Sunday, two days after federal officials announced that the aircraft's private operator has demonstrated they are safe to fly, said Ken Frederick, a fire information officer with the U.S.

Forest Service.

The two were among 33 planes grounded in May because officials had no way to tell if the military surplus planes – some of which are as old as 60 years – were safe.

Five were returned to service in all this week.

One plane will be based in Prescott, the other in Winslow, said Frederick.

He said it wasn't clear how long the aircraft would be in Arizona.

"These are chess pieces on a great big chessboard, and they're moved around as needs dictate," Frederick said.

Crews focus on key flanks of fire in Tonto

PAYSON – Crews battling an 85,000-acre wildfire in central Arizona focused Monday on keeping two critical corners of the blaze from widening.

Firefighters worked on securing the southeastern and northwestern sides of the fire in the Tonto National Forest.

The lightning-caused Willow fire was expected to grow in acreage, but wasn't threatening any homes or communities, said U.S.

Forest Service spokesman Jim Payne.

The threat posed earlier to Payson was significantly lessened when crews strengthened protection lines near the mountain community of some 14,000 people.

"The threat to Payson is basically minimal," Payne said.

"We missed the bullet on this one."

He said firefighters successfully kept the fire from reaching Payson through burnouts and fire lines.

Crews planned to set fires on the southeastern and northwestern flanks to consume forest fuel in between protection lines and the blaze.

Winds out of west helped push the fire back into itself Monday, Payne said, effectively burning vegetation that firefighters would had to backburn.

The fire, which began June 24, was 17 percent contained.