Firefighters Grapple With Triple-Digit Heat Against Wildfire

June 12, 2020 Updated: June 12, 2020

TUCSON, Ariz.—Hundreds of Arizona residents under an evacuation notice were allowed to return home Friday but were told to remain ready to leave at a moment’s notice as a wildfire burns in a national forest near Tucson.

Firefighters are trying to keep the blaze in canyons and ridges and prevent it from moving downhill.

“The fire activity near the homes has dropped down due to the good work of our firefighters,” said Adam Jarrold, public information officer for the fire management team.

Most of the western United States is experiencing extreme dryness or drought, creating challenging conditions for wildfire season, Bryan Henry, meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center, said in a recent fire season outlook.

Authorities have said southern Arizona’s dry, hot weather and the steep, rocky topography have been the main challenges in fighting the fire. Friday was the hottest day yet for crews battling the blaze, with temperatures forecast to reach 107 in the afternoon.

National Weather Service forecasters said temperatures were projected to remain in the triple digits through the weekend with a 10 percent chance of dry thunderstorms or potentially dangerous downbursts that bring only a trace of moisture but can kick up gusts of wind that feed flames.

“We do have some weather concerns,” said incident meteorologist Gary Zell, who was stationed Friday at now-closed Catalina State Park.

“These guys are heroes, working all day in up to 107 degrees,” said Zell, who has worked wildfires around the West for two decades. “This is the first time I’ve worked a fire in my hometown so I’m pretty vested in making sure everything goes well.”

Arizona Wildfires
Wildfire air attack crews continue to battle the Bighorn Fire along the western side of the Santa Catalina Mountains, in Oro Valley, Ariz., on June 12, 2020. (Matt York/(AP Photo)

Authorities said the fire’s growth slowed overnight Thursday but that it remained a threat. Flames have been visible from Tucson at night, and smoke from the fire plumed over a suburb Friday morning. Later in the day, an air tanker was seen spreading red fire retardant over the flames.

The firefighting effort will get help from Federal Emergency Management Agency, which officials say has granted Arizona’s request for federal funds.

The fire, sparked June 5 by lightning, was only 10 percent contained as of Friday morning. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group said in its daily operation plan that containment may not be achieved for weeks.

Pima County officials on Thursday issued an evacuation notice for approximately 300 homes in a area south of the Coronado National Forest. But the notice was pulled back late Friday afternoon after fire officials determined it was safe for them to return home, said Deputy James Allerton, a sheriff’s department spokesman.

Horses at the Catalina State Park Equestrian Center were transported out of the area for their safety.

As of Friday, the fire had burned nearly 11 square miles of mostly brush and tall grass. Specialized crews were assessing potential threats to homes and other structures to identify access routes and develop contingency plans in case the fire spreads into residential areas.

In the neighborhoods closest to the fire, sheriff’s deputies checked IDs to confirm that people trying to enter were residents, as helicopters dropped water on hot spots.

Sheriff’s officials went door to door in neighborhoods on Thursday to notify residents of the evacuation notice, which a sheriff’s spokesman said Friday wasn’t mandatory.

“People are not required to leave, however we are telling people we may not be able to come back and assist if things start to burn,” said Deputy James Allerton.

No injuries or structural damage was reported, Allerton said.

Travis Mayberry, an operations section chief for the fire management team, said Friday much of the fire was burning in terrain too rugged for grounds crews to work safely, particularly if they needed to escape quickly.

“It’s not a great place for us to put people in to safely work,” he said. “It’s just too steep.”

Arizona Wildfires
Wildfire air attack crews continue to battle the Bighorn Fire along the western side of the Santa Catalina Mountains, in Oro Valley, Ariz., on June 12, 2020. (Matt York/AP Photo)

In Oro Valley, on another side of the Santa Catalina mountains, dozens of people parked their vehicles Friday afternoon alongside State Route 77 to watch three helicopters battling flames descending the slopes as smoke poured into the sky.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has been asking people to avoid the area during the fire unless they live or have business there to prevent traffic congestion and roadway dangers.

Also on Friday, authorities in northern Arizona evacuated the Jacob Lake area where a small wildfire was burning near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The fire has burned over 3 square miles.

By Matt York and Anita Snow