Wind feeding growing forest fire in eastern Arizona

PHOENIX - Wind continued to drive a wildfire through bone dry trees and underbrush in the Tonto National Forest on Friday as firefighters dug in for a long battle.

More than 2,100 acres had been charred as of Friday by the Coon Creek fire, which started Wednesday in the Sierra Ancha Mountains about 30 miles north of Globe. About 360 firefighters, including some 100 brought in Friday, were trying to stop the blaze with the assistance of at least two engines, a helicopter, three air tankers and two airplanes.

''Mother nature's been in control,'' Tonto National Forest spokesman Jim Payne said. ''The winds today, that's the big factor for us. The more days we have with winds, the more problems we have.''

Leaders in the battle planned to work around the clock devising strategies to snuff the blaze, but because of the wind, fire crews were likely to be pulled off the fireline once it got dark, forest spokeswoman K.C. Ross said.

National Weather Service forecasters expected the wind to continue out of the southwest at 15 to 25 mph Friday with temperatures in the mid 80s to mid 90s.

The weekend forecast offered little relief with cooler temperatures but continued windy conditions through Sunday.

Forest Service officials believe the Coon Creek fire was caused by humans. It started in an area that is ripe for a large burn.

Years of fire suppression helped build up large amounts of undergrowth, leaves, pine needles, and twigs. In some places the underbrush - or duff - is 4 to 6 feet deep. And winter brought little moisture to the area.

Much of the vegetation has less than 10 percent moisture content and some has less than 4 percent, Payne said.

''What you've got is kiln dried,'' he said. ''It's just like a tinderbox.''

The fire ripped through the area, feeding on that fuel and continuing to grow. Some of the flames reached 100 feet into the air, building a towering smoke plume about 2,000 feet tall.

Often, wildfires can be contained quickly by experienced ''Hot Shot'' crews. In this case, the rapid pace and the rugged terrain kept them from making a dent.

Forest Service officials have closed the Sierra Ancha Wilderness and much of the surrounding area between Arizona Highway 288 and Forest Road 203.

Campers, workers at a nearby ranch and the Forest Service lookout at Aztec Peak were evacuated Wednesday.

The blaze already has some forest officials thinking back to 1996, when fire ravaged much of the western United States.

In Arizona that year, there were three fires that burned more than 15,000 acres each. The biggest, the Lone fire in the Four Peaks area east of Phoenix scorched 62,500 acres.

Fire is always a risk in the dry Southwest, said Mary Zabinski, a Forest Service spokeswoman. How much rain and lightning come this summer will have a lot of impact on the severity of the fire season, she said.

''You kind of go into every year with dread and a little bit of paranoia,'' Zabinski said. ''April is probably too soon to call it.''

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On the Web: The U.S. Forest Service has information for the Southwest Region available at www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire.

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