Over 200 fire personnel from multiple fire agencies around the state are battling the Sawmill Fire, which was burning an estimated 15,000 acres about 40 miles in the Coronado National Forest, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry.
Golder Ranch Fire District
SONOITA — The Sawmill Fire burning in southern Arizona covered more than 40,000 acres as of Wednesday night, more than twice the size it was the night before, officials said.
A crew of about 600 firefighters and related personnel were assigned to the fire, according to an update provided on the state’s wildfire-incident website Wednesday night.
The firefighting effort has been offset by strong winds and the region’s grassy hills. The fire sparked on Sunday and has burned through Coronado National Forest land about 40 miles southeast of Tucson. Fire officials declared the fire to be human-caused, with details still under investigation. There have been no reports of structural damage or injuries, though about 100 people have been evacuated from their homes.
As of Wednesday night, the fire was 20 percent contained, according to the update, which indicated that officials were preparing for a red-flag warning for high winds in the area on Thursday, which could cause the fire to again spread more quickly.
Fire-team spokesman Manny Cordova said earlier Wednesday it was too early to predict when the fire may be fully contained.
The Arizona Department of Transportation closed State Route 89 south of Interstate 10 from milepost 40 to milepost 55 on Tuesday. Detours include State Route 90 to go east, or Interstate 19 to head south. There was no timetable for the reopening of the highway.
‘Not large, but complex’
Fire crews had hoped for favorable weather to slow the fire’s progress, but a red-flag warning, signalling critically dangerous fire conditions, was issued Wednesday afternoon. A storm system in northern Arizona is expected to create high air pressure and strong winds in southern Arizona this weekend. Those winds, in combination with expected low humidity levels in the area, could create a ripe environment for fire to spread.
Fire team spokesman John Cambra called the fire “not large, but complex.”
The rolling terrain creates natural channels that collect debris and rainwater. Grass and other vegetation thrive, and when the dry season comes they become ideal fuel for fire, which snakes along the channels and crawls up the hills. Once a fire rises above the hills, gusts of wind can throw it faster than it would spread on its own.
On Tuesday, erratic winds blew up to 35 mph, and the fire left a path of black as it carved its way through an area of ranches and empty residences. After more than 100 people were evacuated from their homes, firefighters created pockets of protection around them, hand-digging fire lines and spraying water to block the fire’s path. Firefighters saved between 60 and 80 structures, including homes and barns, Cordova said.
The fire quickly burned through the region’s dry grasses. Full-grown cactuses blistered and shed their needles. Tall trees survived, holding their leaves high above the flames, but small trees exploded in a puff of ash. Highway guardrails weakened and twisted to the ground as the fire jumped across Highway 83. Splotches of fire-suppressing slurry dotted the hills in bright pink. Man-made fire lines split some hills in two: one half a greenish-brown, safe behind the flames, the other half an empty black.
After the fire passed around their home, a couple walked through what was left of their land. Gone were the small trees that once dotted the space outside their home. Gone was a fence that now surrounded an empty field. Gone was everything except their home, a small square of survival. Together they surveyed the land, kicking over piles of ash that used to be trees. The woman held her hands on her head as the man swung an ax at the splintered remains of a tree.
Evacuees wait, and hope
Residents were directed to Red Cross evacuation centers in Tucson and Sonoita. Most people chose instead to stay with family or friends. On Wednesday, the shelter in Tucson sat empty, and only three people had come to stay at the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds in Sonoita.
Penny Baker, Misty Golden and Ali Twombly had already prepared to flee their Golden Valley home. A pre-evacuation notice had been sent out, telling them to pack their essentials and be ready to leave if the fire turned their direction. Be ready, it told them. A crew had come to cut away any vegetation that might catch fire. They packed. They were ready. They watched as the fire grew and churned toward them.
“It’s definitely endangered,” Misty said of their home.
The notice came around 5 p.m. on Tuesday, declaring they would have to leave within two hours. Misty packed a copy of her diploma, Penny corralled the dogs into the car and they drove away from their home.
“You could see the flames,” Penny said. “It was behind us. Maybe a couple miles.”
They drove to the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds, where fire crews had set up a mobile command center and the Red Cross turned the main hall into a shelter, blocked from view by a silver plastic curtain hanging in the doorway. They slept on cots.
Outside, 24-hour fire crews slept in tents set up in a Little League baseball diamond. A half-dozen firefighters lined up at a trailer, waiting to check in for the day’s shift. The parking lot was filled with trucks and vans from across Arizona. A steady breeze blew through. A few evacuees came to check in for dinner that night, saying they already had somewhere to sleep. Residents unaffected by the evacuation made grocery runs and dropped off snacks and sunscreen, and a sheet of paper hung by the front door listed what other people had offered:
“Help with loading, unloading.”
“Will volunteer and bring food.”
“Stock trailer, can evacuate livestock.”
Misty just wanted a cigarette. She had quit smoking a year ago, and now the chaos was giving her a headache.
A woman walked past, talking about how she had just driven by the fire. Misty strode over to her.
“Did you see it?” she asked.
The woman swiped her phone open and called up a picture of the flames. “Here,” she said, handing it to Misty.
“Oh,” Misty said, looking at the fire trickling ever closer to her home. “That’s not good,” and she disappeared behind the silver curtain.
Republic reporter Jessica Suerth contributed to this article.
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