Gladiator Fire bearing down on Crown King; No containment on Sunflower Fire

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by Catherine Holland

Video report by Ryan O'Donnell (Crown King) and Gibby Parra (Payson)

Posted on May 14, 2012 at 6:41 AM

Updated Monday, May 14 at 12:38 PM

Map: Gladiator, Sunflower fires

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CROWN KING and PAYSON, Ariz. -- While the Sunflower Fire burning southwest of Payson is the largest wildfire in Arizona right now, there are no evacuation orders in effect.

It's a different story in Crown King, where the Gladiator Fire burning in the Prescott National Forest doubled to about 600 acres overnight because of high winds.

Flames have already destroyed at least three structures. A Southwest Region Type I Incident Management Team is expected to take over handling the Gladiator Fire Monday.

The wind-whipped flames are threatening Crown King from both the north and the east. Crews are spending much of the day doing what they call structure protection, which involves clearing debris and potential fuel as far from homes as possible.

Horsethief Basin is also in the fire's path, along with several forest-service campgrounds, lookout towers, communications sites, power line and historic sites located in the forest.

The American Red Cross has set up a shelter at Mayer High School. According to 3TV's Ryan O'Donnell five adults from two Crown King homes were at that shelter Monday morning. Volunteers from Animal Disaster Services were helping with pets and finding safe placements for large animals.

About 350 people live in Crown King. The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office has issued an evacuation order for the town. Residents are allowed to stay in their homes as long as they remain on their property. If they leave, deputies will escort them out of town or their own safety.

The Gladiator Fire started at about 11 a.m. Sunday. It began as a house fire, but quickly flared out of control, spreading to a second building. According to a neighbor, a propane tank exploded, sending flames into the woods. By Sunday evening the fire had grown to 300 acres.

Two air tankers, two helicopters, seven hand crews and several fire trucks are battling the flames from every possible angle. At this point, crews have no containment.

To check on family and friends who are affected by the Gladiator Fire, check out the Red Cross-run website SafeandWell.org.

Crown King threatened by wildfires before

This isn't the first time Crown King has been in the path of a wildfire. The town was evacuated in 2005 for the Humbug Fire, in 2006 for the Tiger Rock Complex Fire, and most recently in 2008 for the Lane Two Fire.

It was the Lane Two Fire that posed the largest threat and caused the most damage, burning 10,000 acres and five homes.

Crown King is a difficult town to defend from fire. Not only is the terrain in the area quite rugged, there is only one main road in and out of town.

Mother Nature not helping fire fight

The location and terrain aren't the only challenges facing fire crews. Weather likely will be an issue, as well.

The National Weather Service has already issued a Fire Weather Watch for the northwest portion of Arizona, including the Crown King area, for Tuesday. That warning kicks in at noon.

A Fire Weather Watch means the covered area is expected to see low relative humidity and high winds.

According to the National Weather Service, winds are expected to increase late Tuesday morning and be strong and gusty throughout the afternoon and evening. Those winds should start to die down starting at about 8 p.m.

No containment on Sunflower Fire near Payson

Nearly 300 fire crews, including 14 engines and five helicopters, are working the Sunflower Fire, which has burned just over 3,000 acres, making it about five times the size of the Gladiator Fire. At this point firefighters have no containment and air tankers are on standby.

The flames are eating up the brush and rugged terrain in the Tonto National Forest near Highway 87 southwest of Payson. The good news is that no structures are threatened and the highway remained open.

That rugged terrain is working against crews who are struggled to get the upper hand on fire.

"The fire is burning in some of the most rugged terrain in the Tonto National Forest, including portions of the Mazatzal Wilderness Area," said Tonto National Forest spokesman Dave Killebrew Monday morning. "They're looking at the heat and the very extremely low relative humidity as factors not helping in the fight against this fire."

Killebrew said crews would focus their efforts on the eastern edge of the fire Monday.

The Sunflower Fire started Saturday morning.

Both the Sunflower Fire and the Gladiator Fire were putting out massive amounts of smoke that was visible from Phoenix Sunday.

Crown King is about 80 miles north of Phoenix. Payson is about 90 miles northeast of Phoenix.

Bull Flat Fire 35% contained

Fires crews also were working a third wildfire Monday morning. The Bull Flat Fire is burning south of the Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery in the Tonto National Forest on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

It's believed that lightning sparked that fire.

No structures were in the path of the flames and no evacuations were ordered.

By Sunday afternoon, the Bull Flat Fire had grown to nearly 500 acres and containment was at 35 percent.

"The season is here."

Killebrew said fire-management officials had been anticipating an early start to what they expect to be a brutal wildfire season.

"The season is here," he said. "It hasn't happened quite as soon because some of the moisture we've had. It has started now.

"We have at least three fires that are being managed by Incident Management Teams," Killebrew continued. "In addition, we have little fires that are starting up every day that are being attacked and suppressed and put out."

In seasons past, getting the personnel to fight wildfires in Arizona has not always been easy. At this point, that doesn't seem to be an issue fire these fires.

"Right now, we're the highest priority in the nation with the activity we're getting right now," Killebrew said, talking about getting resources to deal with the wildfires. That might change as summer goes on and wildfires start cropping up in other states.

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