Safety of firefighters, residents No. 1 priority, officials fighting Woodbury Fire say

The Woodbury Fire the night of June 12. (Donna Carr, special to Independent Newsmedia)

The human-caused Woodbury Fire burning in the Superstition Wilderness is approximately 11 miles from Gold Canyon, officials said at a community meeting June 12.

The safety of firefighters and local residents are the highest priority, Incident Cmdr. Rich Nieto said at the meeting held at 6 p.m. at Gold Canyon United Methodist Church, 6640 S. Kings Ranch Road.

His Type 1 Southwest Area Incident Management Team (Team 2) — 56 people for logistics, finance and public information — took over management of the Woodbury Fire 12 hours earlier, at 6 a.m. The incident command post is at Peralta Trail Elementary School, 10965 E. Peralta Road in Gold Canyon.

“My No. 1 intent is to get everyone home safely, and that’s no easy task,” Cmdr. Nieto said.

“No. 1 is firefighter and public safety. Nothing out there is worth a firefighter or the public being harmed,” Neil Bosworth, Tonto National Forest forest supervisor, said.

“No. 2 — and this part’s a little harder — is the desert, right? The Sonoran desert, the iconic Sonoran desert. We also don’t want to harm that. We want to protect it. We want to keep the fire from communities, but we don’t want to harm the desert while we do that,” he said.

Neil Bosworth, Tonto National Forest forest supervisor, explains the top priorities for fighting the human-caused Woodbury Fire burning in the Superstition Wilderness. He spoke at a June 12 community meeting at Gold Canyon United Methodist Church, 6640 S. Kings Ranch Road. Also on the stage were a sign-language interpreter and a stenographer, with information on a screen. (Video by Richard H. Dyer, Independent Newsmedia).

The fire 5 miles northwest of Superior in the Tonto National Forest started June 8 and is now 10,090 acres, according to a 10:26 a.m. June 13 notice at inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6382, the incident information system.

Firefighters in a Hot Shot crew getting ready to do a back burn by Peralta Trail about 7 p.m. June 10. (Donna Carr, special to Independent Newsmedia)

Ten crews mixed with Hot Shot crews are working with a dozen engines supporting them, Rocky Gilbert, operations chief for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, said at the community meeting.

In addition to firefighters, multiple helicopters have been used to drop water. Some carry buckets of water from area lakes; others have hoses that can draw water into onboard tanks, he said.

Earlier, air tanker planes were used to drop fire retardant, Mr. Gilbert said.

“During the initial attack phase, they did use every — basically — air tanker between the Mesa-Gateway air-tanker base and Prescott air-tanker base. Currently, one of the things, the retardant leaves a mark on the ground and some of the areas we’re attacking currently is in Sonoran desert and so we’re trying to minimize that sort of long-lasting mark out in the country, so we’re utilizing water with the helicopters,” he said.

The air tankers could be used if there is imminent danger to the public, Cmdr. Nieto said later.

“If we’re talking about public safety and the communities … and an imminent threat of it coming in, in regard to that, that may be the appropriate use — maybe air tankers. But you also, in this (type of) country, you have to use them in tandem with boots on the ground. You can’t just use air tankers only for those purposes, so you’ve got to look at that as well,” he said.

June 9 photo of the Woodbury Fire from inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6382.

Crews hope to focus the direction of the fire to the north and into the Superstition Wilderness, but it could progress toward Gold Canyon.

“With so much grass out there, it could still kind of progress this way, just not in a very high rate of speed as it kind of backs into the wind, just kind of following the grass. If we get the east winds … which is always associated with some sort of disturbance going through the area, you could see movement,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Evacuation protocols

If the fire gets too close and Gold Canyon residents would need to evacuate, they would be contacted with a reverse 9-1-1 system, Chuck Kmet, Pinal County’s emergency manager, said.

All Pinal County businesses and homes with landlines — and many cellphones — are in the reverse 9-1-1 system and would be notified, he said.

“Once we are given that notice, we can get that out to 10,000 people in a matter of two minutes, according to our vendor that we have,” Mr. Kmet said.

He encouraged residents to sign up for the Pinal Emergency Notification System. It is at pinalcountyaz.gov/emergencymanagement/pages/home.aspx.

A Peralta Canyon resident asked if the new community with about 10 residents was part of the reverse 9-1-1 system.

Todd House

Pinal County Supervisor Todd House said after the meeting that he would confirm that.

“I did hear some questions tonight, so I will go with Chuck Kmet, our emergency management team, to make sure that we have all of that reverse 9-1-1 that we can get that information out to people. And the new Peralta Canyon people, we can take care of that. We can just have the sheriff go door-to-door. There’s only 10 of them. Easy enough to take care of that,” he said.

Firefighting officials have identified areas on a map, called management action points, that would determine if an evacuation is needed, Mr. Gilbert said.

“Based on fire behavior or fire growth, they’ll put some lines on a map and we’ve discussed with the sheriff on how much time they think they would need to get everybody evacuated. And if the fire progressed to those lines, once we get it developed, that we notify the sheriff’s office and go through the process,” he said.

Trigger points on the map would be used to alert residents to a possibility of an evacuation prior to the actual evacuation, Mr. Gilbert said.

“We go through a multi-step process, working with the sheriff’s office, to make sure you have plenty of time to get out,” he said.

Information on the Woodbury Fire, including a map of the general area, is at inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6382.

Regular updates are also being posted on Facebook @TontoNationalForest and on Twitter @TontoForest. The fire information line is 505-399-2439 or e-mail 2019.woodbury@firenet.gov.

‘Best of the best’

Local fire chiefs are confident the incident management team has the resources needed to put out the fire and keep it from Gold Canyon, they said at the meeting.

Fire Chief Mike Farber

“The Type 1 team here, under Richard Nieto, is the best of the best,” Superstition Fire and Medical District Chief Mike Farber said.

“I’m so impressed with the professionalism and what I want to let you know is they have the resources and the capabilities to take care of the fire. If we have any issues with Gold Canyon or Apache Junction, we’re more than capable of handling them with our resources that we have,” he said.

The district is part of a mutual-aid system of more than 20 regional agencies that can be used, he said.

Prior to the incident command post being moved to Gold Canyon, it was in Queen Valley.

“We have been working on the fire since the initial onset of the fire. My crews responded on the initial attack line with the forest-service crews and worked hand-in-hand with them since the fire began,” Queen Valley Fire District Chief Cecil Fendley said.

“We’ve been hosting the incident command post the last few days, so most of my crew has been working tirelessly to support the forest service troops, which are doing an outstanding job and I can assure you this fire is in good hands. If it gets close to towns, we’re more than capable of handling through the mutual-aid system, so these guys are doing a great job,” he said.

Pinal County Supervisor House said he is confident the Type 1 Southwest Area Incident Management Team (Team 2) can keep the fire from local communities and liked that a local meeting was held by officials.

“I think it was very informative to a point. I think there’s still a lot of nervousness from the residents in Gold Canyon if the wind changes whether it can actually come to Gold Canyon, but I feel very confident since we have an incident 1 team here now, which is the national leader, that if it should turn — come this direction — they’re going to draw that line in the sand,” he said after the meeting.

“They’re always talking about those lines and when they get that line they’re going to hit it with everything they’ve got to stop it from going in to Gold Canyon, so I feel very comfortable it’s not going to have any problem with Queen Valley or Gold Canyon or even Superior. And they’re aiming it north,” Mr. House said.

There is no timeline to how long the Woodbury Fire will be burning, he said.

“The guy who has just got here, he can’t build any expectations of how fast they can put it out. But I feel very comfortable that now we have the assets here to get it out and the money and the people there that should be able to affect and take care of it,” Mr. House said.

“It’s going to be a long time. I’m hearing a month. It could take as long as a month to settle that down and put the fire completely out,” he said.

Air quality, smoke

An air-resource advisor will be arriving soon to provide updates on air quality to the communities affected, Cmdr. Nieto said.

The smoke seen June 12 was caused by areas of brush, Mr. Gilbert said.

Rocky Gilbert, operations chief for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, speaks at the Woodbury Fire meeting in Gold Canyon June 12. He is gesturing toward a Google Earth map showing the fire location. To his right is a sign-language interpreter. (Richard H. Dyer, Independent Newsmedia)

“The smoke that you’re seeing today was … in that Red Tanks area, kind of Red Tanks/Randolph Canyon, and right up on top … is all brush kind of on the north, northeast side … putting up a lot of smoke. And then there’s just pockets of brush all along that main ridgeline,” he said.

Kim Dennison of Apache Junction said her horses have been adversely affected by the Woodbury Fire’s smoke and she planned to speak after the meeting with officials about it.

“I’m just glad they’re willing to help out and give this kind of information,” she said.

Supervisor House said he lives in unincorporated Pinal County near where the Mining Camp Restaurant was and the smoke has been very heavy from the fire.

“I just wish they could get it out because of the smoke,” he said.

“The smoke came around the other side of the mountain and just settled. It was thick. It was horrible,” Mr. House said.

Resident reaction

Bill Bilyo, who has lived in Gold Canyon for 45 years, said after the community meeting that he was very concerned about the fire in the Superstition Mountains.

He remembers another fire that was in Gold Canyon.

“We dealt with one in about ‘95 or so, over toward — behind Bashas’ there — going up the Superstition Mountain, but that was (put out) pretty quickly,” he said.

The fire should be a wake-up call to anyone with tall, dry weeds in their yards, Apache Junction resident Susan Malloy said.

“Who’s to say something couldn’t happen in Apache Junction? It’s not that far,” she said.

“What irks me is that I’ve got neighbors who haven’t taken care of their yards and their weeds are high and I’m freaking out because I spent over a thousand dollars to clean our yard up so we didn’t have that problem… All it would take is someone going down our street on Tomahawk Road and flipping a cigarette because their yards are just full of weeds and bushes,” she said.

Ms. Malloy learned about the meeting because she is a member of the Gold Canyon United Methodist Church.

“I was just glad we all got a chance to come hear this, to know what is going on and be aware. It may not affect me directly right now, but who’s to say another time it won’t and I’ll want to know what to expect and what to do and be responsible,” she said.

Volunteer efforts

Charlie Wise of Lost Dutchman Realty, 185 N. Apache Trail Suite No. 1 in Apache Junction, is collecting water that will be used if Gold Canyon residents are affected by the fire.

“If — God forbid, worst case scenario, people are evacuated, shelters are setup — we have water on-site, ready to go,” Braden Biggs, of United Way of Pinal County, said after the community meeting.

The water collected by Mr. Wise could be used for Peralta, Gold Canyon or Superior residents who need it, Mr. Biggs said.

“Anybody affected. We are being proactive in this result, so that we have things on-site, ready to go to be distributed if that happens. If that does not happen, the public needs to be aware that the donations that are made — if and any — will then come back to the United Way of Pinal County for the heat-relief network to be dispersed amongst the communities,” he said.

United Way of Pinal County is working directly with the Office of Emergency Management on any donations, he said.

“We will figure out exactly what they need, if they need anything,” Mr. Biggs said.

Denise Ottaviano, deputy information officer for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team (Team 2), speaks at the Woodbury Fire meeting in Gold Canyon June 12. To her right are a sign-language interpreter and a stenographer transcribing what was being said and it displayed on a screen. (Richard H. Dyer, Independent Newsmedia)

Donations are not needed by firefighters or support personnel, but “thank you” notes can be written or signs put up in yards, Denise Ottaviano, deputy information officer for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team (Team 2), said.

“This is a very generous and kind community and I can tell you one thing that will really help the firefighters is your support. They’re tired and they work hard and they miss their families,” she said.

Editor Richard Dyer can be reached at rdyer@newszap.com

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