SIERRA VISTA — Hot, dry weather with high winds are making it tough for firefighters battling the Monument Fire burning in the Huachuca Mountains southeast of here.
THOUSANDS DRIVEN FROM HOMES
More than 10,000 people in the Sierra Vista area were evacuated from their homes in the last two days alone, according to Carol Capas of the Cochise County Sheriff's Department.
High winds on Saturday and today made the Monument Fire's path extremely unpredictable. Some residents were told to evacuate, then allowed to return, then evacuated again.
As might be expected, air quality has worsened in many areas of the state, including Tucson, where the Catalinas were completely hidden in smoke for much of the afternoon today.
According to the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, smoke particles in the Tucson area haven't reached an irritating level.
But those who live closer to wildfires should take precautions to avoid the smoke, especially those who have heart or respiratory conditions, said Dr. Michelle McDonald, Chief Medical Officer for the Pima County Health Department.
"Hopefully we'll be lucky and this won't be hovering around town for long," McDonald said.
According to the Pima County Health Department, those who do experience irritation could have a scratchy throat, cough, irritated sinuses, headaches, runny nose and stinging eyes. People with lung diseases, asthma, or chronic bronchitis are more likely to experience symptoms.
Others near Sierra Vista should know there are certain things can be done to avoid inhaling smoke particles, McDonald said. This includes:
-- Turning off evaporative coolers and using air conditioning without outside air intake, if possible
-- Not using anything that burns: gas stoves, candles, cigarettes.
-- Keeping windows and doors closed.
-- Using a HEPA air purifier, if possible
One common misconception is that dust masks can keep you safe from smoke-but those masks can't block smoke's tiny particles, McDonald said. Those who must go outside can buy particulate masks at hardware stores.
"A dust mask isn't really going to do that much for the smoke. From what I've heard, even a bandana doesn't do that much," McDonald said.
Pima county residents can visit www.deq.pima.gov for up-to-date air quality stats.
From the scanner:
6:51 p.m.: "Working structure. Mopping up on South Wild Rose now."
6:56 "There's engines on every house that needs it." Says Wild Rose
is being taken care of.
COMMUNITY MEETING WRAPPING UP
Cochise County official at community meeting says fireworks have been
banned in the county.
"Ditto for the cities of Sierra Vista, Bisbee
He says it seems like common sense, but needs to be said.
The audience packed into the auditorium at Buena High School breaks into applause.
SCANNER TALK TIMELINE
About 4:40 p.m.: "We need help. Cannot control it."
4:48: "We changed our plans here." All units from divisions 1, 2 and
3 directed to Ramsey and Kino.
4:49: "Bravo 5 (air unit) is back up."
4:52: "Fire making a pretty good run in subdivision off Ramsey and 92."
5:14: "Heavy aircraft coming down Ramsey Road."
Shortly after: "We've got the fire contained on the north side of
Ramsey at this time." Hot spot at Ramsey and Campobello and we're
"going to converge on that."
5:32: Low hanging power line, about 10 feet in the air, across Ramsey
5:38: Line being check out.
5:39: "I think we've got this thing in check." Orders stop to
controlled burn on Burro.
5:45: Someone asks for two engines on White Oak and is told that
there is nothing available.
5:47: Operations command says it will try to get some units up on
Carr. In response, someone says units should pull back.
5:51: Operations command says We've got guys all over this place."
Says air support is needed. "We need to assemble someplace and try to
get some organization somehow."
"I need to sit down with you guys somewhere and work out some kind of
"This thing is slowing down a lot, but we need to have some
6:04: All units are fighting structure fires.
6:24: Tender going to join Type 1 team at Ramsey and Campobello Avenue
near La Rosa. They are working quite a few structures in there.
You can listen to the scanner traffic here.
'THIS THING IS SLOWING DOWN A BIT'
From scanner at 5:51 p.m.: Operations command says "This thing is slowing down a lot, but we need to have some organization now."
Moments earlier, operations command said "I need to sit down with you guys somehwere and work out some kind of plan."
MORE EVACUATIONS ANNOUNCED
The eastern zone of the most-recent pre-evacuation area is now under mandatory evacuation orders. The north and south boundaries are the same, officials said, but residents of the area east of Homestead Road and east of the river were told to leave their homes immediately.
The south boundary is roughly Lower Ranch Road, the north boundary is Horse Thief Draw.
The fire is five fingers of flame, caused by multiple incidents of spotting when the wind blew embers across Arizona 92, officials said.
More than 100 engines are trying to keep the fire south of Ramsey Road.
Also, Libby Army Airfield launched several heavy air tankers at approximately 5 p.m. this evening to combat the Monument Fire, officials at Fort Huachuca reported.
You can listen to scannner traffic here.
LIMITED AIR ATTACK
An air tanker is now attacking flames on both sides of Arizona 92, despite high winds in the area that had previously grounded the aerial assault, officials said.
"This doesn't look good at all. This is horrible. This is a nightmare," said Sierra Vista native Debbie Schmidlin, who was evacuated twice in the past week from homes east and west of Arizona 92 at the mouth of Miller Canyon.
Sunday, she watched from behind police lines two miles north of her home, as wind-driven fire raced down the canyons and jumped across 92, burning quickly hrough the tall grass that surrounds ranchettes and subdivisions there.
She had first moved across Arizona 92 into a friend's house, then had to evacuate for other friends well north of Sierra Vista in Whetstone.
"If this fire gets there, I'm leaving Arizona," she said.
Mario Morales, who has a mobile home on land he owns on the east side of 92, was philosophical. "You just gotta accept it," he said. There is no stopping this monster."
Morales said he has lived in the area for 26 years and seen fire before, but nerver one this vicious.
"We're in God's hands," he said.
The fire's run east came on a day when the air tankers and helicopters that could help stop it were grounded by the same 45-mph winds that pushed the fire.
Ricardo's restaurant and Nick's Place, a bar, have sustained fire damage, the extent of which is unclear.
Both businesses are in Nicksville, a community just south of Sierra Vista, according to Terina Mullen, a spokeswoman for the Northern Rockies Level I Incident Management Team.
According the Cochise County Sheriff's Department, the fire is moving east, pushed by high winds. Huge plumes of black smoke reported.
From scanner: "Fire making a pretty good run in subdivision off Ramsey and 92."
The fire has crossed Arizona 92 near Ramsey and Carr canyons, officials said. Crews are trying to hold it at Ramsey Road.
Structures are burning, but it's unknown how many, according to Terina Mullen with the Incident Command Team.
Phones are down at the fire information center, so residents are asked to tune into 1420-AM or 92.3 FM.
'WE NEED HELP'
One or more explosions have sent huge plumes of black smoke into the air near Arizona 92 at Carr Canyon. Sierra Vista Fire Department is on the scene.
From scanner 20 minutes ago: Type 1 Incident Commander says "We need help. Cannot control it."
WINDS EXPECTED TO PICK UP SPEED TONIGHT
Spot fires that blew across Arizona 92 were put out quickly this afternoon, officials said, but the Monument Fire continues its run toward Sierra Vista, a town that's home to about 45,000 people, including military personnel from Fort Huachuca.
The flames are speeding north down Miller Canyon and fire crews hope to attack it at White Lily Road, said Mark Regean, a fire information officer.
The cloud of smoke is thick and many people are now wearing masks on their faces.
Ashes are blowing around the city. The wind is so strong that it shakes vehicles.
People are being turned away from the Windemere Hotel because it's full. Those standing around are eerily calm, just watching the fire.
According to an alert from the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, winds in the canyons are expected to gust between 50 and 60 mph tonight, with lowlands having gusts of 40 mph. This extreme weather situation will make fire predictions erratic and dangerous.
All residents in the pre-evacuation area are encouraged to be ready to leave at a moment's notice in the event that the fire crosses Arizona 92 in a northeast direction.
The Mountain View golf course on Fort Huachuca has been evacuated and will be closed until further notice.
MORE RESIDENTS PUT ON ALEED
Officials have issued a pre-evacuation order for a southern portion of Sierra Vista near the Windemere Hotel and Sierra Vista Mall.
The boundaries are roughly Lower Ranch Road to the south, up to Horse Thief Draw to the north, Arizona 92 on the east and Buffalo Soldier Trail the west.
Residents must prepare to leave at a moment's notice, officials said.
Meanwhile, smoke blowing from the Monument Fire is sounding false alarms in Bisbee, officials say.
Residents of Bisbee, which is 25 miles east of Sierra Vista, are calling to report fires in Zacatecas Canyon and the Mule Pass Tunnel. But the Bisbee Police and Fire Departments are assuring residents there is no fire—it’s just smoke from the Monument Fire, said Sandra Flores, a deparment spokeswoman.
“The sky is pretty thick and black, but there are no reports of fire,” Flores said.
FIRE REACHES 92 AND CARR CANYON
The Monument Fire has reach Arizona 92 at Carr Canyon. A spotter plane in the area is searching for hotspots, according to an official from the National Forest Service.
NEW MANDATORY EVACUATIONS ORDERED
The Cochise County Sheriff's Office has issued a mandatory evacuation for Ramsey Canyon north to Yaqui and east to Campobello.
Also being evacuated is Ramsey Canyon north to lower Ranch, west at Aquaduct, and east to the San Pedro River.
Residents are being urged to leave as the fire inches closer.
Motorists are being asked not to use Arizona 92. Ramsey and Hereford roads are now closed.
FLAMES NOW VISIBLE FROM THE CITY
The afternoon winds did what fire officials expected them to do today, and that is kick up in the afternoon.
Smoke and flames from the Monument Fire could easily be seen from the parking lot of the Windemere Hotel on Arizona 92, across from the Mall at Sierra Vista.
Trent Fields and his teenage son Andrew drove to the hotel for a Father’s Day brunch. After they got out of their car, they stood spellbound by the frightening spectacle on the mountain.
“I’m concerned and saddened,” Trent Fields said. “This is the first time I’m seeing flames during the day, and we are miles away (from the fire).
Winds ground aircraft fighting fire
June 19, 12:15 p.m.
Planes and helicopters helping fight the Monument Fire have been grounded since 9 a.m. due to winds gusting up to 50 mph along the ridgetops.
Gas service turned off to 200 homes
Southwest Gas has shut off natural gas service to 200 customers in the area bordered by Ramsey Road on the north, East Calle de la Palmera on the south, South Mesquite Tree Lane on the west and Calle Lima on the east, according to Southwest Gas.
Gas also has been shut off to an undeveloped and unoccupied subdivision immediately to the west of that area.
Smoke is from "mop-up" work on post
Smoke reported on Fort Hucachua is from mop-up operations on the Garden Fire, previously called the Antelope Fire, according to Norm Rooker, spokesman for the incident management team.
Trying to remain upbeat
Lindsey Eltinge, 25, evacuated her home in Nicksville Wednesday after a knock on the door from law enforcement. She had very little time to pack a few things, grab her three dogs and get out. She drove to a friend’s house in Sierra Vista. Meanwhile, her husband was at work on Fort Huachuca.
Eltinge said the past few days have been tough but she’s remained calm and optimistic. But the news early Sunday that the pre-evacuation zone had been expanded to the San Pedro River took the smile off her face, but just for a moment.
"This means our house is fair game. The fire could now jump (Arizona) 92.”
She looked down and scrolled through photos of the fire on her phone taken from her backyard and showed them to her friend, Judy Lamb. Lamb, her husband and their older son also were evacuated earlier last week.
They believe their house will be OK and look forward to going home soon.
“We have sort of evacuated three times already,” Lamb said. “It’s been tough.”
New pre-evacuation order issued
The Cochise County Sheriff's Office has reissued a Reverse 911 pre-evacuation order for Ramsey Canyon north to Yaqui and east to Campobello.
A new pre-evacuation order is being issued for Ramsey Canyon north to lower Ranch, west at Aquaduct, and east to the San Pedro River.
Evacuation orders remain in effect for the area south of Ramsey Road.
New teams are in place statewide
The Arizona State Forestry Division has put together an "Arizona All Hazard Incident Management Team" to help quickly put out any new fires that may start.
"Our goal is to support all agencies by extinguishing fires as soon as possible," Incident Commander Roy Hall said in a press release.
The division has established six task forces, two of which are assigned to the Monument Fire, and four others "prepositioned and staged around Arizona for initial attack," he said.
Each task force contains five engines, up to five firefighters, Initial Attack hand crews consisting of 20 personnel, and one water tender that holds an average of 3,500 gallons.
"It's gonna get funky"
In an early-morning fire briefing, crews were told to brace for winds up to 40 mph, possibly accompanied by fire whorls.
"it's gonna get funky, but we know what to do," said Steve Frye, deputy incident commander for the 1,000-person team fighting the fire.
This could be the windiest day yet on a fire that has already destroyed 47 homes on previous windy days.
The tension today is centered on Miller Canyon, where the teams fighting the fire have their first line of defense against the fire's northward movement toward residences.
The difference between now and conditions on Tuesday and Thursday, where fire blew out of the canyons and across Arizona 92, is that the team is better prepared, said Frye. In addition to its primary line of defense in Miller Canyon, it has contingency plans in the canyons to the north to deal with whatever the fire does.
"We're gonna have a good day," Frye predicted. "We've been pointing to this day since we got here."
Updates from June 18
The wind blew, the fire grew and nobody rested on the seventh day of the Monument Fire, burning over the mountains and through the canyons south of this city of 42,706 residents.
But good news Saturday came on two fronts: The winds weren't as bad as feared and the containment line around the fire nearly doubled to 27 percent.
No new fires popped up, no evacuees joined the thousands already ordered from their homes and fire commander Greg Poncin was able to announce at a community meeting for the second day in a row Saturday that "things are better."
But the Monument Fire is far from over, Poncin cautioned the crowd gathered at Buena High School.
Much is still at risk, including the Army post at Fort Huachuca and homes in the canyons of the Huachucas and the grassy plains of the San Pedro River valley.
That had made this fire the No. 1 national priority, said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, meaning it is at the top of the list for any resources needed to fight it.
Tidwell, who toured this fire and the former No. 1 priority Wallow Fire in Eastern Arizona on Saturday, said the entire South is suffering from historically dry weather and multiple large fires.
The air is dry and the trees and shrubs hold nearly no moisture. Here, the knee-high grasses are bleached the color of straw and crumble to the touch. You don't need more than a brisk breeze to trigger red flag conditions, and gusts up to 45 mph are predicted for today.
On Saturday, the wind didn't blow in earnest until midafternoon. The fire in Miller Canyon erupted briefly, but calmed early when the sun went behind the ridges, said Mark Goeller, operations chief for the Type 1 incident management team fighting the fire.
Goeller said one member of his 1,000-plus team recorded a humidity reading of 0 percent Saturday.
Conditions have been so ripe for fire that on Friday, when a bulldozer blade striking a rock sparked a 2,000-acre brush fire, four other fires were caused by his own team along the edge of Arizona 92, said Poncin.
Those fires were quickly extinguished and the bulldozers carving a six-blade-wide break between the mountains and homes are now accompanied by firefighters with backpack water pumps.
Goeller said the credo is: "Under abnormal conditions, don't do normal things."
That means going farther afield to create firebreaks, he said.
The goal, said Poncin, is to keep the fire behind a line that connects the upper reaches of Miller and Carr canyons, a line that will protect homes in those canyons and keep fire from crossing Arizona 92, beyond which lie the suburban subdivisions south of Sierra Vista.
Firefighters are hoping the wind stays down, but the weather forecast for today is again looking troublesome, said Carol Capas, spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Office. Another red-flag warning will be in effect for the area from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today. Winds today are expected to be sustained at 20 to 30 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph expected. Wind gusts in the canyons could be much higher.
The weather Saturday held up for most of the day. Wind speeds in the area ranged in the upper teens to mid-20s mph for most of the day, according to the National Weather Service.
The evacuation zone stretches from the canyon areas west of Arizona 92 to Hargis Ranch Road and from Hereford Road north to Ramsey Road, according to the Sheriff's Office. The area east of Arizona 92 on Three Canyons Road to Oakridge Drive is also under evacuation orders.
Those with notices to be prepared to evacuate are in a much greater area, stretching to the San Pedro River north to Buffalo Soldier Trail.
Fire in Miller Canyon
Firefighters worked to build containment lines from Miller Canyon to the Fort Huachuca boundary, according to fire officials. They were expected to have those breaks completed by later in the day. The containment lines are necessary because crews will be trying to set intentional fires between the lines and the head of the fire in the canyon.
In Carr Canyon, the neighboring canyon to the north, fire crews were building firebreaks, to act as a backup in case the fire vaults over Miller Canyon.
"Then, we are prepared to make another stand at Carr Canyon," said Tom Fields, a spokesman for the fire's Incident Command operation.
The fire crews are being aided by more helicopters than were used Friday.
"We want to make sure that we are ready so when the fire meets the fire trails and fire lines, it stops right there," Fields said.
Soldiers fighting fires
Meanwhile, soldiers are helping in the firefighting effort.
Having recently returned from a year in Iraq, 450 members of the 40th Expeditionary Signal Battalion were one day away from going on a 30-day leave when the Monument Fire went on a run Thursday. The Battalion, which has another 250 soldiers who stayed on post, were instead sent on a new assignment.
Since Thursday, they've been building a nearly two-mile fire- break along the southwest boundary of the fort. They're also clearing out brush around some of the homes closest to the Huachuca mountains.
The fire that raced across part of the fort Friday afternoon before being put out sparked a wave of concern among the families who live on the post.
It helped some Army families "to realize they really need to get ready," said Alice Lauderdale, the wife of a soldier and leader of a family readiness group. "I could see the flames from my house."
Col. Tim Faulkner, the garrison commander, instructed them to get prepared for an evacuation even though the fire isn't threatening the fort for a moment.
Forest Service official Drew Leiendecker told the crowd that firefighters have largely secured the eastern edges of the fire and have had some success stopping its northward movement in Miller Canyon.
The fort is supplying all the water that aircraft are using to fight the fire, Faulkner said. As a result, there has been a drop in the water table at the fort. Post officials asked all residents on the fort to stop watering their lawns to maintain the water reserve level.
"Libby Army Airfield is the busiest airport in the world right now," Faulkner said.
Friday's flare-up on Fort Huachuca prompted some Sierra Vista residents to get busy clearing brush Saturday.
In the White Wing subdivision, about a mile south of the acreage charred Friday, Sandy Kunzer methodically used his weed-trimmer on the tall, dry grass.
"I will keep trimming till I'm told to leave," said Kunzer, a retiree. "If I get the whole two acres done, so be it."
As he worked, a hot wind blew off the Huachuca Mountains, and helicopters flew overhead toward Miller Canyon, where smoke rose lazily.
Up the hill, Justin Larson also was weed-whacking, pitching in for a friend who is out of town.
"I'll be here all day today and maybe tomorrow," Larson said.
Down the slope, he pointed to the spot on the base where the smaller Antelope Fire sparked up Thursday afternoon. Dust devils crossed the charred land, black instead of brown as it picked up burnt dirt.
In the nearby Mountain Shadows subdivision, a three-man work crew used a backhoe and grader to rip dried grass and brush from the ground in an empty lot. They were hired by the lot's owner. The neighborhood is otherwise filled with homes.
• Where: South of Sierra Vista
• Reported: June 12
• How: Human caused
• Size: 20,956 acres
• Personnel: 1,061.
• Containment: 27 percent
• Homes lost: At least 47 (as of Friday)
• Cost: $6.4 million