Flagstaff, AZ – Yesterday was another difficult day for the now 800 firefighters struggling to slow the fast moving Schultz Fire. Eric Nietzel is a public information officer on the Schultz Fire.
"The big challenge was the wind, and the low RH, really caused some active fire behavior, to the point where we don't feel comfortable putting crews in front of the fire, so we pulled some crews back, we were letting the fire do its thing."
Firefighters let the blaze burn down to bulldozer lines fire crews had established Sunday night, just in front of the evacuated neighborhoods. But despite yesterday's fierce winds, those lines held. Dugger Hughes is the incident commander for the Type 1 team that took over management of the fire yesterday morning.
"The winds were against us all day long, certainly fire behavior was against us, topography was terrible, and we didn't lose anything. That is optimism. I'm not going to say we made a whole lot of progress, but we saved approximately 12 hundred homes, didn't lose one. Hopefully we can ahead of the curve, I think we set ourselves up to make the next couple of days really productive is what we did."
Behind Hughes a layer of smoke sits on top of the ponderosa pines, like a thick, white cotton blanket. Just in front of the trees, homes sit quiet and empty, but still standing.
"There are some places where the fire got in people's backyards. But luckily we had people on site to work on those, most places it's probably couple hundred foot at the closest."
Hughes says sixty to seventy percent of firefighters worked to protect homes yesterday. Others worked to secure what he calls the heel of the fire. That's where it blew up Sunday morning in the Schultz Pass area, in between Mount Elden and the San Francisco Peaks. Next firefighters will try to connect the fire line protecting homes along Highway 89 to the burn area of the Radio Fire, which scorched the eastern side of Mount Elden in the 1970s.
"Hopefully, high probability, that this whole side of the fire will be secured, we won't have to worry about it anymore, then we can get after the rest of it."
Meaning firefighters will then try to prevent the fire from spreading along the south face of the San Francisco Peaks. Hughes thinks the fire has made it to the edge of the Inner Basin, high on the Peaks. But he doesn't know for sure, because the smoke has been so thick they can't see into it from the air. He'll have a better idea after he sees infrared maps of the burn area. But he knows it will be grueling work fighting the fire high on the Peaks.
"It's going to be slow, slow, hard, hand line cut in there, it's 3 to 4 foot of deadfall in a lot of places, then once youget under the dead logs, huge boulders, you can't hardly walk in there, let alone fight fire in there. It will take days to get up and around it."
Efforts to fight the fire from the sky have also been slowed by the wind. Eight air tankers, out of only 19 in the entire country, are on scene at the Schultz Fire. But they were grounded again early yesterday afternoon because of the high winds.
Last night fire officials did confirm that the fire was caused by an abandoned campfire in the Schultz Pass area. Karen Malis Clark is with the Coconino National Forest.
"That makes sense that area of the origin is a popular area for camping, for dispersed camping in the forest."
But it makes little sense for the hundreds of homeowners who still can't return to their homes, and to the thousands of people who hike, bike and find inspiration on the San Francisco Peaks.