The Monument Fire continues its run north toward Sierra Vista with more than 11,600 acres already burned in the Huachuca Mountains since the fire started on Sunday. It is 17 percent contained.
Crews go on offensive in canyons overnight
More than 800 people are now assigned to this fire with more than seven helicopters being used. Two military aircraft that are equipped to fight fires are expected to join the battle on Saturday, flying out of Libby Airfield.
Crews overnight tonight into Friday morning are planning to conduct intentional fires in Miller and Hunter canyons. The effort, weather permitting, is to rob the fire of critical fuel. Back burns are also expected in the Nucci Lane area south of Hereford Road.
Another red-flag warning will be in effect for Cochise County for most of Friday. Expect strong winds and low humidity.
Fire crews managed to keep the blaze south of Hereford Road on Thursday. The fire now has moved into Hunter Canyon, officials said.
Some residents returning home
Some evacuees are being allowed home for the night but will face possible evacuations on Friday morning, officials said Thursday night.
People who were evacuated from residences on the east side of Arizona 92 will be allowed to return home tonight to make better prepartions for possible evacuations as needed Friday.
All those who are allowed to return will be under a new pre-evacuation order Friday.
This area includes Ramsey Road on the north, Arizona 92 on the west, to Moson Road to the east to Arizona 92 to the south. These residents will likely face evacuation orders sometime after 10 a.m. Friday, officials said.
Residents allowed to return to their homes in this area should be prepared to leave in a moment’s notice, officials said.
Arizona 92 at Hereford Road, south to Coronado Memorial Road will be closed through the night, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office said late Thursday. All locations on the west side of Arizona 92 from Miller Canyon south to Ash Canyon will be closed until further notice.
Hereford Road is closed until midnight between Moson Road and Palominas Road.
Crews holding the fire line at Nucci Lane
Fire crews are holding the line against the Monument Fire in the area of Nucci Lane and Hereford Road, east of Moson Road, officials said.
Crews will be lighting controlled burns in that area for the next several hours in hopes of keep the fire from spreading further east.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer will visit the shelter at Apache Middle School at 10 a.m. Friday. She’ll take part in an aerial tour of the Monument Fire and the Horseshoe 2 Fire burning in the Chiricahua Mountains before coming to Sierra Vista to meet with fire officials, law enforcement and residents.
SOME GOOD NEWS
The preliminary word from fire structure specialists assessing the damage this afternoon is good, said Pat Call, chairman of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors.
The firefighters’ initial assessment is that no houses have been lost east of Arizona 92 in the Hereford area, Call said. Many people, including Call, reported plumes of black smoke in the area and suspected that was an indication that houses were burning. But apparently that is not the case.
“It seems impossible,” said Call, who drove into that area Thursday afternoon and found himself surrounded by 30 to 40 foot flames. “That would be incredibly great news.”
It’s unclear what happened to homes on the west side of Arizona 92, Call said. He was heading to a 6 p.m. fire update at Sierra Vista’s Windemere Hotel.
Bo Padgett, 33, and his wife left their Hereford-area home Wednesday for a convention in Las Vegas, leaving behind his daughter and mother. When Padgett’s family and friends heard the news from the fast-moving Monument Fire today, they went into action.
“My mom, my daughter and six to eight friends went over and pretty much stripped my home,” Padgett said.
They moved several vehicles, tax paperwork, hunting equipment and a room full of Nascar collectibles, he said.
“They had it gone in less than an hour,” he said.
EVACUATION AREA CLARIFIED
The Cochise County Sheriff's Office is ordering evacuations from all homes from Ramsey Road east to Moson Road in the area north of Hereford Road. In the area south of Hereford Road, they are ordering evacuations east to Palominas Road and south to Arizona 92, Capas said.
There no current evacuations ordered for homes south of Arizona 92.
About 1,700 homes were evacuated today, she said.
Tom Fields, a Monument Fire spokesman, said that the rapid movement of the fire today is "a case in point of a red flag warning coming to fruition."
COCHISE COUNTY DECLARES EMERGENCY
In an emergency meeting held telephonically this afternoon, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors voted to declare an emergency.
The board’s declaration opens the door for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to declare an emergency in the county, said supervisors chairman Pat Call.
Just a week ago, the board voted to declare an emergency due to the Horseshoe 2 Fire, burning in the Chiricahua Mountains. But the governor declined to make the declaration because she didn’t think that fire’s losses were great enough, Call said.
This time, Call said, he thinks she’s likely to accept and could open the door to individual assistance from the state for those who lose their homes to the fire. He said he thinks that many homes were lost today when the flames raced out of Stump Canyon along Three Canyons Road.
CLOSE CALL FOR COUNTY SUPERVISOR
Shortly before an emergency meeting this aftternoon of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, Chairman Pat Call drove straight into the heart of the emergency.
Driving a county-owned Chevrolet Tahoe, Call was heading north on Arizona 92 when the smoke began to thicken in the area of Stump Canyon Road. Firefighters were in the area and he stopped, but then heard from a friend further north, beyond the smoke, who needed help.
Call followed another emergency vehicle into the unknown.
“I figured ‘What the hell — how bad could it be?’ ” Call said.
Then he found out.
“About Three Canyons (Road), there were 30 to 40 foot flames on both sides of the highway,” Call said.
The black smoke closed like a door behind them.
“We were in a sort of hallway of flames,” Call said. “The heat was so intense that the windows were too hot to touch.”
The drivers turned their vehicles around but couldn’t flee fast because of the thick smoke, Call said.
“Long story short, we made it,” Call said.
“There were deer running across the road trying to get away from the fire,” he said. “I should have been as smart as the deer.”
Call drove away with the impression that many homes were lost in the area where he ran into the flames. He said he saw 40 or 50 puffs of black smoke that may have come from structures and would not be surprised if today’s losses were worse than Wednesday’s.
MORE RESIDENTS TOLD TO LEAVE
Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for all areas between Ramsey Road east to Moson Road and south to Hereford. Also, the area bounded by Hereford Road to Palominas Road, south to Arizona 92 and back to the west to Arizona 92.
Officals ask that all motorists avoid Arizona 92, a large portions of which is already closed.
The Monument Fire is now 100 yards south of Hereford Road at Ranch. Several residents are refusing to leave, according to the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.
Mike Calabrese was among those who were told to leave within the past hour.
"I listen to authorities, and I suggest that others do the same," said the former volunteer firefighter from New York state. "I feel blessed that we were given enough time to remove personal items like photos that cannot be replaced."
Calabrese, who works at Fort Huachuca, was interviewed near the corner of Calle Delarosa and Ramsey Canyon Road, where there was a continuous stream of evacuees. He said he and his wife and son live a half-mile away, he said.
“I’m seeing a lot of dark smoke, and we’re losing homes," he said. "But we have a lot of peoiple putting out an extraordinary effort to save save homes and lives."
Lelani Cain, who lives on Calle Delarosa, also was told to evacuate this afternoon.
Asked if she thought her home was in danger of burning, she said: “I hope not. Who knows? Who knows?
Her father was in the vehicle behind her, trying to hurry her along.
VORTEX OF FIRE SPOTTED
Joe Gandara and friends saw an amazing site this afternoon as they watched the Monument Fire from their rooftop south of Sierra Vista.
After the flames crossed Arizona 92 in the Three Canyons area, the fire got caught in a dust devil and a towering vortex of flame formed, said Gandara, whose home is not under an evacuation order.
“It was easily 100 or 200 feet tall,” he said, speaking on the phone from his rooftop on Dakota Road, north of Hereford Road. “The wind was blowing so hard it kept it up for about a mile.”
From their vantage point, the fire was moving straight east in the area of Three Canyons road, which runs east-west about two miles south of Hereford Road.
In comparison with the fire to the south, the flames on the Huachuca Mountains to the west look relatively tame, Gandara said.
“It looks more like it’s smoldering on the mountains,” he said.
GAS SERVICE SHUT OFF FOR SOME
Southwest Gas is shutting off service to 57 homes east of Arizona 92, between Ramsey Road and Hereford Road, said Libby Howell, the utility’s spokeswoman.
Those are the first homes with natural gas service to be potentially affected by the Monument Fire. Most of the homes in the areas affected so far do not have natural gas service but may use propane tanks instead.
“It’s a precaution to minimize damage,” Howell said of the shutoff.
Southwest Gas has a plan in place, worked out with firefighting staff, to shut off gas service in stages to areas threatened by the fire, Howell said.
AIR ATTACK RESUMES
Fire officials confirm that helicopters and planes are back in action in the sky near Sierra Vista, where the Monument Fire continues to move north. Huge flames are visable from Moson and Hereford Road.
POWER OUT AT COMMAND CENTER
The electric power went out moments ago at the Type I incident command center near Sierra Vista. The command center is at Valley View Elementary School in Hereford, a community just south of Sierra Vista.
Jack Blair, chief member services officer for Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, said that the power was cut at the request of firefighters. He could not say how many customers are affected at this point.
CHOPPERS, PLANES GROUNDED
High winds have forced the grounding of helicopters and all other aircraft battling the Monument Fire, according to Terina Mullen, spokeswoman for the Type 1 incident management team that's fighting the blaze near Sierra Vista.
Also, the fire has jumped Arizona 92 near Stump Canyon and is now burning east of the highway, according to the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.
Winds are currently 28 mph at Fort Huachuca, gusting to 38 mph. The temperature is 94 degrees, with humidity at 11 percent, according to the National Weather Service.
The wind is doing what fire officials had feared: pushing the flames north and northeast toward more populated areas.
Weather reports call for stronger gusts, which could push the fire fast this afternoon.
Tom Fields, a fire official, called the wind's behavior a "legitimate threat."
No new evacuation orders have been ordered yet.
SMOKE MOVING INTO CITY
The winds have started to pick up in Cochise County and smoke is wafting into Sierra Vista.
Crews are dealing with terrible conditions — wind, low humidity and dry fuels — and the fire shows no sign of letting up.
The Red Cross has a service center near Palominas where residents can retreat from the smoke and get information.
The Sheriff's department is utilizing the center to disseminate information to residents.
ANIMAL SHELTER FILLING UP
Workers and volunteers at the New Frontier Animal Medical Center in Sierra Vista are hoping to expand into an empty building nearby as more dogs and cats arrive.
There are 40 pets in the center now, said Kathryn Honda, the hospital administrator. She said they will be kept indefinitely for residents who had to flee the fire.
She said the community has been very generous with donations of dog and cat food. There are more than 20 volunteers.
One dog, whose doghouse was burned, was treated for smoke inhalation.
AREAS ON PRE-EVACUATION
The Cochise County Sheriff's Office is conducting pre-evaluation alerts this morning west of Arizona 92, from Miller Canyon north to Ramsey Canyon; east of Arizona 92, from Hereford Road north Ramsey Road, and to approximately Y Lightning Ranch Road.
The Department of Public Safety has closed Arizona 92 in Southern Arizona due to the Monument Fire. The road is closed south of Sierra Vista for about 12 miles. DPS is advising motorists to use alternate routes such as Arizona 90 and Arizona 80.
For local traffic only, Arizona 92 is open from the junction of Arizona 90 to the town of Sierra Vista.
BIRDING PRESERVE READY
Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains went under a pre-evacuation alert this morning, but The Nature Conversancy’s renowned preserve there is as prepared for the Monument Fire as it can be, said Ken Wiley, stewardship director for the conservancy’s Tucson office.
The Ramsey Canyon Preserve, a mecca for birders from around the world, has been closed since Sunday. Everyone and everything valuable that can be moved has been moved, Wiley said.
In addition, the Conservancy has been planning for a major fire for years, Wiley said. Workers have thinned the preserve’s hundred of acres over the last six or seven years, he said, so if the fire does make it into the canyon, it won’t have as much fuel to feed on.
Among the attractions in Ramsey Canyon is the diversity of hummingbirds that can be found there — up to 14 species.
Images of the destruction from the Monument Fire show the force of the blaze.
Hot spots are still burning this morning in residential areas. Many homes and other buildings were destroyed in Ash Canyon, which was evacuated Sunday.
Residents are waiting for the Cochise County Sheriff's Department to inform them if they can return to their property.
About 20 people awaited news about the fate of their homes after spending the night in a Sierra Vista shelter.
The shelter at Apache Middle School housed the people and four dogs, said Jennifer Thornton, a shelter manager.
"We're just trying to make people as comfortable as possible," she said.
Justine Farrell, 38, lost her house in Ash Canyon and is staying with family. She visits the shelter regularly to check on friends and neighbors. More than 40 homes have been lost in the Monument Fire, which began Sunday.
Farrell evacuated Sunday after sheriff's deputies knocked on her door and told her to leave.
"It came as a total surprise," she said.
Monetary donations can be made to the Monument Fire fund at any Wells Fargo Bank location.
Fire official Denise Shultz predicted a rough day.
“It’s going to be a really long, hard day," she said. "The winds are really squirrely.”
She said structural protection in Hunter and Miller canyon is a focus for firefighters today along with constructing fire lines in an attempt to further contain the blaze.
GETTING AHEAD OF THE WIND
With anticipated wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour this afternoon, firefighters assigned to the Monument Fire plan to attack the blaze from the air before they are grounded.
It's already warm in the area and humidity levels hover in the single digits. The fire is 17 percent contained.
Mop up work has begun in the Ash and Miller canyons and officials are going in to assess damage to structures before deciding if residents can return.
A Type 1 Incident Command Team has taken over an elementary school. Maps hang on the walls and laptop computers are humming as officials try to keep communication flowing.
Today, there are 536 personnel assigned to the fire and 40 engines and five helicopters.
DAYBREAK BRINGS ANXIETY
The sky over Sierra Vista is ominous this morning as the Monument Fire continues its run north with more than 9,000 acres already burned.
The winds are calm, but officials warned residents Wednesday night that high winds this afternoon could pose a challenge for firefighters.
From Arizona 92 in Sierra Vista, the cloud of smoke billowing in the Huachuca Mountains is visible and the smell of smoke is strong.
Today's forecast offers no relief as the National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning from noon to 7 p.m. for Cochise County.
Hundreds of people had to evacuate their homes, with officials expecting the blaze to continue moving north in the days ahead.
The Monument Fire started on Sunday and is 17 percent contained, said Greg Poncin, incident commander with the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.
Forty homes and 10 other structures have been destroyed or damaged, said Cochise County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Carol Capas. Nobody has been injured.
The fire currently stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border north to Miller Peak, which is 10 miles south of Sierra Vista, but it is moving north. Officials have set Ramsey Road as the northern containment point for the fire. The road is about five miles south of the heart of Sierra Vista and three miles south of Buffalo Soldier Trail.
“We are looking at how we can get ahead of this thing and finally stop it,” Poncin said. “It’s going to burn considerably further north before we have a place where we can successfully build a line and stop this thing.”
But, he said, “that does not mean these canyons are going to be a repeat of Ash (Canyon), because we are going to continue put our emphasis on protecting those structures at the bottoms of the canyons.”
WATCHFUL EYE ON FORT HUACHUCA
Poncin said it would be premature to say Fort Huachuca is in danger, but he acknowledged that “we are going to have our job cut out for us protecting structures as the fire burns north and comes out of these canyons.”
Firefighting crews have focused on keeping people and homes safe, hoping to prevent further loss of homes. The fire did not jump Arizona 92 on Wednesday as it did on Tuesday but officials fear it could, prompting evacuation orders for many residential neighborhoods east of Arizona 92.
The mass evacuations and the large, billowing cloud of smoke coming from the Huachucas all day Wednesday brought hundreds of people to a community meeting at the Windemere Hotel and Conference Center in Sierra Vista.
Before the meeting started, residents huddled around maps that were posted showing the fire’s parameters, assessing the threat to their homes. Others shared stories about what they’ve seen and heard.
By the time the meeting began, the ballroom was packed. Fire officials were upbeat about the progress, and residents were fairly calm, even laughing at a few wisecracks from officials.
But the residents listened intently as officials explained the harsh reality of fighting a raging fire in hot and dry summer conditions.
“It was so dry today that most of the water, before it could hit the ground, was evaporating,” said Mark Goeller, operations section chief, drawing “ahhs” from the crowd.
“So we have real issues just using water. And it is a very tight canyon where the fire jumped, so it was very difficult for us to get the helicopters down low enough to get the water to the ground.”
Winds as strong as 40 miles per hour are in the forecast for today, Goeller said.
“We’re really on high alert for what could happen tomorrow,” he said.
Long-term, Goeller and Poncin offered a sobering prognosis.
“This is a long, drawn-out affair,” Goeller said. “This isn’t a quick fix.”
As the blaze quickly moved north Wednesday afternoon, Cochise County sheriff’s deputies and Border Patrol agents drove through neighborhoods just south of Hereford Road telling people to get ready for evacuations.
Freddy Gonzalez stood outside his house on Miller Canyon Road gazing at the rapidly approaching smoke. His wife and kids had already left, but he was hoping he wouldn’t have to.
“I don’t want to leave until I’m told I have to,” said Gonzalez, a retired firefighter of 25 years.
Within seconds of saying that, a Cochise County sheriff’s deputy drove by and said, “Mandatory evacuation, men, gotta go.”
“I think they just did,” said Gonzalez, who said he has accepted the fact that he may lose his house of eight years. “It’s a shame. It’s coming down quick.”
Down the street, Terry Adney packed a few things in the back of his car. The mandatory evacuation was the latest twist in a difficult four days since the fire started on Sunday, he said.
“There’s a lot of angst,” Adney said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster since it started.”
He was extremely worried that the blaze would destroy the house he’s lived in for nine years.
“Stuff can be replaced, but you prefer to not have to replace everything,” Adney said.
A bit farther north, at the intersection of Arizona 92 and Hereford Road, Sheri Rice stood outside her restaurant, the Lone Star Cafe, and gazed at the billowing smoke coming off the Huachuca Mountains. She hadn’t been told to evacuate, but she knew that could come soon. Police filled the intersection, stopping cars from going farther south on Arizona 92.
“I’m nervous, real nervous,” said Rice, who has owned the restaurant for eight years. “This is our livelihood, and I would hate to lose it.”
West of the Lone Star Cafe, residents in several neighborhoods packed things up after receiving an alert from the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office to prepare to leave.
“It doesn’t look good at all,” said Irasema Dolan.
Tom Baldwin was getting his things ready, including his dog and two cats, and wondering whether he would go to Sierra Vista or to a relative’s home in Elfrida.
Across the street, James and Janelle Tellez loaded up their truck with clothes, a lockbox, important documents, a baby stroller and bassinet that had been in the family for three generations. They took turns holding Emma, their 14-month-old daughter.
At the community meeting, Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever told residents to take evacuation orders seriously.
“When we say mandatory evacuation, understand this: That is the highest degree of alert to you that you ought to get the heck out of there,” Dever said. “If you choose to stay, understand that you may not get help at the last minute should things go south and go bad.”
All of the damaged and destroyed homes were in the Ash Canyon area, southeast of Sierra Vista in the Huachuca Mountains.
On Tuesday, residents of Ash Canyon who did not heed the pre-evacuation order had just minutes to flee once they were told to evacuate, said Capas, the Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman.
“It’s really important, people. Pay attention to this. Yesterday it was fast and furious. I don’t know that any of the residents anticipated that,” said Capas on Wednesday.
A combination of factors is making the fire especially volatile, said Dixie Dies, a spokeswoman for the Monument Fire incident management team.
Vegetation that died during the record freeze in February, along with extremely low humidity and wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour, are creating “extreme fire behavior” — fast burning and explosive.
About 1,000 people were evacuated from Ash Canyon on Tuesday, Dies said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 398 firefighters assigned to the blaze, including 24 engines and eight helicopters, she said.
Cochise County Supervisor Pat Call said the fire devastated Ash Canyon.
“It’s getting closer and closer to more and more population,” he said.
Call said he didn’t know how many homes were burned in Ash Canyon. From the highway, he could see that some survived but many “melted away.”
The chapel at Our Lady of the Sierras was gutted and the home of its owners was destroyed. But the giant cross remains, he said.
Tuesday’s firestorm in Ash Canyon was “a swirling tornado that moved through terribly fast,” Call said.
Sheriff’s officials suggest residents move livestock to a safe location and be prepared to take animals with them in the event of an evacuation. The Sheriff’s Office can provide contact information for volunteers available to help move large animals. Anyone who needs assistance should call the Sheriff’s Office at 1-520-432-9500.
All residents, especially those with mobility issues or medical problems, should have a plan in place so they can evacuate at a moment’s notice. When preparing to evacuate, residents should pack a “go-bag” that includes medications, important papers, money and enough personal items to sustain them for several days, officials said.
Roger Contreras, a Cochise County prosecutor who lives in Hereford, has his go-bag ready and waiting.
He was told to evacuate late Tuesday afternoon, he said. But he and his neighbors were allowed to return later that night.
“It’s been kind of scary,” said Contreras, who lives about a mile east of Valley View Elementary School. “The area is full of knee-high prairie grass.
“There is no evacuation order where I am, but they’ve asked us to be ready to go. I think everybody except for a couple of people up in the canyons has been very lucky.”
Residents of Sierra Vista and surrounding areas are volunteering to help evacuees move belongings and animals.
One group of about a dozen Fort Huachuca workers helped clear dry grass and other flammables from around homes that were not yet evacuated.
Josh Vander Veen, a civilian contractor, said he and a dozen others cleared flammables from around three homes, and they also helped move cars, furniture and livestock.
Fort Huachuca wary
With the Monument Fire moving north toward Sierra Vista, the home of Southern Arizona’s largest military installation, concern is mounting over the safety of soldiers and civilian staffers, and the protection of Army facilities.
Many connected to the military live in the vicinity of the fire, said Tanja Linton, a spokeswoman for Fort Huachuca, the Army post that’s a major center for intelligence training.
“It is a time of great anxiety for the entire post,” Linton said.
Last week, in recognition of high fire risk, the Army closed all canyons on the post’s 73,000-plus acres. And on Tuesday night, top brass set up a crisis team in the operations center to coordinate with firefighting agencies and other authorities.
“We are in a ready posture should the fire move across the canyons to the fort,” Linton said.
Star writers Tom Beal, Carol Ann Alaimo, Tim Steller, Kimberly Matas and M. Scot Skinner contributed to this report.