Sedona, AZ – Air tankers dropped fire retardant over the north part of the blaze while hot shot crews used axes and shovels to build fire lines to keep it from burning any more of Oak Creek Canyon, its homes and tourist-driven businesses.
Firefighter Chris Ader takes a break from mopping up hot spots above the Slide Rock picnic area. His blue eyes appear especially bright on his ash darkened face.
ADER: It's difficult. You got to watch where you're stepping but it's not too bad. It's physically demanding work but if you're in good physically fit it's not bad at all.
Physical shape is just one factor. Jason Coil supervises many of the hot shot crews.
COIL: It's got to be the right conditions those guys are taking it step by step just making sure the conditions stay right. The winds started blowing a minute ago and the smoke started laying on the line so it's kinda step by step I guess.
Miles from the smoke and flames at Red Rock High School the fire bosses talk strategy. Incident commander Paul Broyles says progress with this fire takes time.
BROYLES: We can't go too fast. We can't put too much heat in that canyon at one time because if we did potentially it could spot across to the north and we've lost all our efforts to date.
Broyles and Deputy Incident Commander Mike Dondaro are part of an elite incident management team that deals with major natural disasters. And Dondaro says he's seen many fires.
DONDARO: This fire is extremely difficult because it's up on top of a mesa and the only way you can deal with it is when it comes down off of it but you have to be very patient with it and deal with it when it comes down to your level so you're not putting anybody's life in danger up there.
The fire has bumped two-lane highway 89A on the north end of the fire. A mile or so south it's just starting to spill over the edge of the mesa hundreds of feet above Garland's Jewelry store. Division Group Supervisor Tony DeMasters points to the patch of flames at the top of the cliff.
DEMASTERS: The fire that's coming off the rim it's called a backing fire. And a backing basically it's backing off the slope. So the only way it's able to move is gravity. So right now gravity is our worse enemy because gravity is allowing thing to burn allowing embers and rocks to carry fire down the mountain. If the fire reaches a certain point we'll counter act fighting fire with fire to stop the fire.
But task force leader Ralph Lucas of Prescott says they're ready for the fire. Lucas has been in charge of preparing the area where the fire is expected to reach in the next day or two.
LUCAS: We're setting up sprinkler systems as the fire creeps down toward these subdivisions. As the fire spreads laterally we bump down the line. We've been behind the curve the last couple days but I feel like were getting caught up because now we've got a full sprinkler system around the subdivision we have a couple water tender shuttling water for us pumping out about 250 gallons a minute through the system and just wetting down this whole area.
Nearby hot shot crews take a break at the end of a 16-hour-day. They say any downtime they have they're sharpening their axes to prepare for another day on the fire.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Sedona.