Weather is helping firefighters defend observatory, towns
– Firefighters were optimistic today that cooler temperatures and expected rainfall would reduce the chances that a pair of wildfires would reach a $200 million observatory and nearly 100 summer homes in the southeastern Arizona mountains.
Light rain fell Thursday, helping to raise the humidity level into the 30 to 40 percent range and slowing the growth of the Nuttall and Gibson fires.
The blazes, which were 35 percent contained, have charred 26,850 acres on Mount Graham since lightning sparked them in late June.
Fire managers said today they were optimistic about their ability to save the 74 cabins in Turkey Flat.
"It seems like we're going to be dodging that bullet," said Dean McAlister, fire management officer for the Coronado National Forest.
High temperatures and low humidity – about 15 percent in recent days – had been driving the wildfires threatening the Mount Graham International Observatory, Turkey Flat and Columbine, a community of about 15 cabins.
Wet weather was forecast for today and into the weekend for the rugged area.
"This weather is really giving us a break," said Dan Oltrogge, incident commander for the firefighting team.
Deputy Incident Commander Paul Summerfelt said the showers on Thursday helped reduce the risk to the observatory, an advanced astronomy research facility run by the University of Arizona.
"The threat to the observatory was significantly abated," he said.
Residents said they were encouraged by the wet weather.
"I know we're not out of the woods, but I feel a lot more comfortable," said Lynne Perry, a 54-year-old Globe resident who owns a cabin in Turkey Flat.
Fire managers said today they were most concerned about firefighter safety as storms blew in with rain and erratic winds.
Lightning and the possibility of flash floods in drainages and canyons were among the biggest risks.
"This mountain is a big lightning rod," said McAlister.
Crews planned to continue thinning vegetation around Turkey Flat and Columbine.
They also planned burnouts, fires set intentionally to clear out vegetation that can fuel uncontrollable flames.
Officials said the fires had grown no closer to either community Thursday.
The 16,900-acre Gibson fire remained within a quarter-mile of the observatory and had not burned up the canyon leading to Turkey Flat as had been feared.
The Nuttall fire, which had burned 9,950 acres, remained about 1-1/2 to 2 miles from Columbine.
The two fires were approaching the observatory from different directions, but crews had taken many defensive measures to protect the facility, home to some of the world's most advanced telescopes.
It was nearly surrounded by lines cut by bulldozers and reinforced with burned out areas and a sprinkler system.
Authorities said the firefighting effort had cost $6.6 million thus far.
The only property damage so far has been to the steps of a lookout tower and to a cinderblock structure used to store electrical equipment on Heliograph Peak, on the southwest corner of the Gibson Fire.
– A lightning-caused wildfire was 40 percent contained after charring 118,300 acres and threatening a power line and communication towers in eastern Arizona.
Burnout operations Thursday along State Route 87 brought the Willow Fire within 44 feet of the base of Mount Ord, which holds a bank of communication towers for agencies including the FBI, Arizona Department of Public Safety and Qwest.
Two 345-kilovolt power lines were shut down for four hours Thursday as firefighters burned out vegetation alongside the highway and underneath the lines.
"We're hopeful that in the next few days that we'll be able to turn the corner (on the fire) and bring it to its knees," said Jeff Whitney, incident commander for the firefighting crew.
Burnout operations along the highway continued into Thursday night.
Small communities near the highway that include Deer Creek, Rye and Gisela were not considered threatened, said fire spokeswoman Carrie Templin.
State Route 87 remained closed between the junction at State Route 188 and the Bush Highway – preventing people from driving to Payson or Phoenix via the route also known as the Beeline Highway.
Firefighters believe they have successfully defended the communities of Payson, Pine and Strawberry against the growing fire, which started June 24 and grew by more than 15,000 acres Wednesday.
Nearly 780 firefighters were battling the blaze, which has cost $7.3 million to fight.
SAN CARLOS, Ariz.
– Firefighters continued to battle a 231-acre wildfire burning in steep and rugged terrain about 30 miles east of here on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
The Military Fire, which was burning oak brush, ponderosa pines and juniper trees, was 80 percent contained by Thursday night, said Rich Kvale, incident commander for the crew fighting the blaze.
No structures were threatened.
The fire, however, also imperiled the habitat for threatened Mexican spotted owls.
TONTO VILLAGE, Ariz.
– Firefighters worked to contain a 140-acre fire that had briefly forced the evacuation of about 85 homes east of Payson.
About 100 firefighters continued Thursday to put out hot spots and strengthen a rough line around the Ponderosa fire, said Emily Garber, a spokeswoman for the crew fighting the fire.