The Monument Fire is now 45 percent contained, officials said Tuesday night. The fire's official size grew little on Tuesday, with the acreage total now at 27,200 acres.
Crews were conducting back burns west of Arizona 92 to rob the wildfire of fuel. Some evacuations of residences were needed because of those efforts.
"We do realize the impact this has on the residents in this area," said incident commander Greg Poncin. "Our primary focus is the safety of the public and firefighters. This firing operation is the most effective method we have to minimize the threat of the fire coming out of the canyon and into the valley."
MORE EVACUATIONS ORDERED
Hundreds of residents are being allowed to return to their homes today south of Sierra Vista, but Sheriff’s officials have also announced a new mandatory evacuation zone in advance of planned controlled burns tonight by firefighters working to create containment lines.
Residents in the new mandatory evacuation zone have until 6 p.m. tonight to vacate their homes, said Cochise County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carol Capas.
The evacuation zone is in an area west of Arizona 92 between Ramsey Canyon Road and Kachina Road. The zone extends west to Fort Huachuca.
Firefighters will be doing controlled burns in the area south of Ramsey Canyon and around several homes this evening to remove what they call “fuel” between the fire and the neighborhoods, Capas said.
This operation is designed to prevent the Monument Fire from barreling out of the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains and into the neighborhoods. The 60-plus homes that have been lost since the fire stared on June 12 have been burned when the fire churns out of the canyons and into the neighborhoods.
“It’s not the fire danger posing a threat,” said Capas about the mandatory evacuation. “It’s the air quality danger. That’s what we’re warning people about.”
Meanwhile, Cochise County Sheriff’s officials have announced that residents in several areas west of Arizona 92 can now return to their homes. These areas include Miller Canyon, Vista Grande, Dead Bear Draw and Foothills Ranch Estates, Capas said.
Residents are being told to meet Sheriff’s deputies at Hereford Road and Y Lightning Ranch Road so they can be escorted to their homes.
The Monument Fire is now 40 percent contained — up from 27 percent through Monday evening.
Tamer winds Monday and so far today have allowed firefighters to make progress in establishing containment lines and keeping the fire in the Huachuca Mountains and away from homes near Sierra Vista.
The fire has now burned 27,190 acres, said Denise Schultz of the National Park Service.
Gov. Jan Brewer is sending 90 members of the Arizona National Guard to help provide security in areas evacuated because of a wildfire in Sierra Vista.
Brewer's office says she took the action Monday at the request of officials in Cochise County.
The guard members are assigned to the Tucson-based 860th Military Police Company. Their assignments will be directed by local law enforcement. Additional deployments will be sent to the area if needed.
The Monument fire has forced about 10,000 people living south of Sierra Vista to evacuate. The fire that broke out on June 12 has now burned 42 square miles or nearly 27,000 acres and is 27 percent contained. About 60 homes and businesses have been destroyed.
WEATHER OFFERS OPTIMISM
Calmer winds Monday helped firefighters make significant progress in slowing the Monument Fire, which has burned nearly 27,000 acres and 65 houses and businesses south of Sierra Vista since it began June 12.
The fire smoldered all day in the Huachuca Mountains, but the blaze didn't come out toward any homes. The tranquil day was a stark contrast to Sunday, when 45-mph winds propelled the fire across Arizona 92, burning 14 homes and four businesses.
"What a pleasure it is to stand before you and actually have some good news," incident commander Greg Poncin told the crowd at an evening community meeting at Buena High School. "It was a lot better today. We have to thank Mother Nature for giving us this break."
But the fire is far from out - it remains only 27 percent contained - with the biggest challenge yet to come, said Poncin, referring to Ramsey Canyon, where the fire is headed.
The good news, he said, is that the same favorable weather conditions Monday are scheduled to continue through Friday. That will give firefighters time to build two control lines and back-burn between them, creating a "catchers mitt" that should help crews prevent the fire from charging into houses when it comes out of Ramsey Canyon, Poncin said.
"We want what happened yesterday with those winds to be the last time this fire comes barreling out of these canyons," Poncin said. "That's our goal."
The calm day came as welcome news for the estimated 10,000 people who have been forced to evacuate since last week. They are sleeping in campers, at hotels or at friends' houses around Sierra Vista until they get the green light to return home.
Sheriff's officials allowed residents with homes in an area south of Three Canyons Road to Arizona 92 to return home Monday afternoon, but most evacuees remain in wait mode.
The uncertainty about the conditions of their homes weighed heavily on evacuees on Monday.
"You can't even sleep at night," said Pat Hortein. "You're always wondering what's going to happen."
She and her husband, Fred Hortein, were among a group of about 100 people who showed up Monday afternoon at Arizona 92 and East Yaqui Street to sign up to be escorted to their homes by Arizona Rangers. Many came to pick up medicine they needed, turn electricity back on, or check on their houses.
After the community meeting, the couple joined a long line of people in line to ask Cochise County Sheriff Deputy Chief Rod Rothrock about the burned homes. The news for them was good - their house on South Mesquite Tree Lane was OK.
The Horteins were among dozens who received good news Monday night after fearing the worst. Considering the ferocity of Sunday's flare-up, fire officials said firefighting crews did a great job to save many homes.
"It could have been really bad had we not been dialed into together," said Mark Goeller, operations chief for the Type 1 incident-management team fighting the fire. "The winds were absolutely horrendous."
A DAY OF UNCERTAINTY
At the evacuation center at Buena High School in northeast Sierra Vista, Linda Eisenhower talked on the phone with a deputy who was checking on a dog she had left behind Sunday. Trying to get all their things as ash and sand swirled overhead made Sunday's evacuation chaotic.
"It was like being in a movie but it was real," said Eisenhower, who lives just north of East Ramsey Road in the area east of Arizona 92. "It was pretty traumatic."
She was able to get two cats and five dogs, but not the last one, which is why she called the Sheriff's Office. "We're not allowed to go back," she said.
She and her husband and teenage grandson are staying in a camper in the Buena parking lot awaiting word on when they can return. Like so many today, Eisenhower doesn't know if her house is burned or not.
"It's stressful," she said. "You just don't know."
But, she said, echoing what many at the school said Monday, "I'm grateful that no one was hurt."
Officials warned that there will still be many more days fighting the Monument Fire before it's out, but they offered an optimistic prognosis during Monday's community meeting.
"We're very upbeat," Goeller said. "We're confident that we are starting to turn the corner here."
The Monument Fire has been an unprecedented event in the region that has been very difficult to fight and manage, but things are looking up, Sheriff Larry Dever told the hundreds in attendance at the meeting.
"It got bigger, faster than we did," Dever said. "I feel confident, with seeing what I've seen today and with what I've heard today, that we are turning the corner and we are going to get you home."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org