CAMP VERDE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Residents in the community of Pine are being allowed back into their homes as firefighting efforts continue against the Backbone Fire. The communities of Strawberry and Hunts Ranch were forced to evacuate earlier this month as fires continue to rage in the area. More fires have also been sparking around the state.
The Gila County Sheriff's Office said early Saturday that Pine's evacuation status was upgraded to "SET," meaning residents should prepare to evacuate once again if the fire threatens structures. Strawberry and Hunt Ridge communities remain under a mandatory evacuation order, but officials updated the road closures in the area.
The Arizona Department of Transportation said Saturday that the hard closure was moved from Houston Mesa to mile post 270 along State Route 87. The speed limit was also lowered to 45 mph until drivers reach Pine. Earlier in the week, an evacuation center set up at Rim Country Middle School in Payson was moved to the Payson High School Dome earlier this week. Large animals, RVs and Campers are still being welcomed at the Payson Event Center.
More than 200 people filed into the auditorium at Payson High School on Monday to get an update from fire officials on the Backbone Fire. That's where Arizona's Family caught up with Karen Blake, who has called Strawberry home for 26 years. "It's everything," she said. Her house holds memories and mementos from her parents and her son, who passed away a few years ago.
She says Strawberry is a pretty, quaint town and one she wants to grow old in. "It's small town. You know even if you don't know your neighbors, you know they live up there. You wave to them," Blake said.
Crews do not know when evacuation orders for the Backbone Fire will be lifted. Mike Reichling, the public information officer for Southwest Incident Management Team 1, is urging people to be patient. They are doing everything they can to keep homes protected on the ground.
"They are actually setting up sprinklers in certain areas that will sprinkle water on homes that are closest to the fire," Reichling said. "And actually protect them that way."
One man said he had to get out so quickly, he accidentally left his wife's ashes in his house. "I asked the police, can I go to my house? I want to bring the ashes back. They just said no. And I said I will walk there if I have to, but they refused," says Pine resident Robert Banholtzer.
"I took it very hard," he told Arizona's Family about being evacuated. "I didn't sleep all night."
The Arizona Humane Society has set up a temporary animal shelter at Rim Country Middle school in Payson. A team of six is there taking in cats and dogs. "Right now we are assisting the Humane Society of Central Arizona. because their shelter is full," says Bretta Nelson with AHS. "One of the biggest things with these fires is people are afraid to evacuate without their pets and oftentimes they don't think there is a place for their pets to go." Nelson wants to assure people their pets will be taken care of.
Burning near the Fossil Creek Recreation Area, its size grew to 40,841 acres and 13% containment as of Saturday morning. It's burning about 12 miles west of Pine and Strawberry. The fire is visible from Camp Verde.
Extreme heat and fire conditions are causing the Backbone Fire to burn rapidly to the north and east, greatly increasing acreage. Rough terrain and limited road access are creating challenges for firefighters. Crews have begun to scout for containment locations south along State Route 260 from FS Road 500 towards State Route 87 near the communities of Strawberry and Pine for future burnout operations. Aerial resources will continue to be utilized to support firefighters on the ground as weather conditions allow.
According to ADOT, State Route 260 is closed between Camp Verde and State Route 87 due to the fire. ADOT says to expect delays and seek alternate routes. There is no estimated time for when the roadway will reopen.
Fire officials say the weather is not helping with containment efforts. Excessive temperatures and single digit humidity will continue for the next several days, with a chance of dry thunderstorms and gusty winds from the north, which could lead to extreme fire behavior.
The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team has assumed command fighting the fire.
The Fossil Creek Recreation Area will be closed due to the wildfire dangers. This includes Waterfall Trail, Irving/Flume, Tonto Bench, Fossil Creek Bridge, Homestead, Sally May, Purple Mountain, and Mazatzal.
The Town of Payson is not threatened at this time, said a news release from Payson on Sunday, June 13. Payson police are working to bring in mental health care professionals and crisis professionals for those in need. If evacuees are in need of medications left at home, they're asked to contact their primary care provider and ask for new refills that can be obtained in Payson. The news release says that law enforcement does not have the ability to retrieve items from evacuated homes.