Gladiator Fire: Wind, terrain working against firefighters

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by Catherine Holland

Video report by Ryan O'Donnell

Posted on May 15, 2012 at 7:32 AM

Updated Tuesday, May 15 at 2:23 PM

Map: Crown King, Ariz.

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Map: Mayer High School

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CROWN KING, Ariz. -- The bad news for crews battling the Gladiator Fire near the historic mountain town of Crown King is that winds are expected to pick up today. The good news is that those winds should push the fire north, away from the evacuated town.

Firefighters were told Tuesday morning to expect wind gusts of up to between 35 and 40 mph during the afternoon. Sustained winds will be in the 15 to 20 mph range. The area will be under a Fire Weather Warning starting at noon. That warning will remain in place until 8 p.m., when the winds are expected to die down.

Teams were able do an aerial survey overnight to get an accurate picture of the fire and its growth. Based on infrared technology, they estimate the Gladiator Fire to be 1,700 acres. Crews have not been able to get any containment.

At this point, crews are trying to fortify the perimeter around Crown King in an effort to protect the homes there. Two homes and a camping trailer have already burned.

"The terrain out there is incredibly rugged and gnarly," Karen Takai of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team said.

Takai said two firefighters have been injured on the fire lines. One was burned; the other suffered dehydration. Takai described the injuries as minor. Both firefighters are expected to recover.

The terrain and weather are not the only hazards facing the crews. The area is home to several varieties of snakes, some of them poisonous. It's also riddled with abandoned mines, some of which are not marked.

Mayer High School was originally a Red Cross evacuation center, but has since transformed into a camp for the teams on the fire lines.

There will be a community meeting at the school at 6 p.m. so the Incident Management Team can discuss their progress and directly answer residents'' questions.

Crown King, which is described as a "living ghost town" and is home to about 350 people, has been under a mandatory evacuation order since Sunday. A few people left early on, but many more heeded that order Monday as they fire grew and threatened the town. According to the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, all but about 30 people have left.

Hundreds more firefighters are expected to arrive in Crown King throughout the day.

The Gladiator Fire started as a house fire late Sunday morning. Investigators say it was not intentional.

The flames quickly spread to second home. According to a neighbor, a propane tank exploded, sending flames into the woods. By Sunday evening the fire had grown to 300 acres. It has grown about five times since then.

The Ponderosa pine, brush and chaparral of the Prescott National Forest are feeding the flames.

Crown King is about 80 miles north of Phoenix.

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