Flagstaff, AZ – Firefighters finally began to get a handle on the Schultz Fire yesterday, which they now estimate is 20 percent contained. But the best news came when Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil stepped to the podium at a press conference along Highway 89 near the fire.
"Due to the valiant efforts of the firefighting services, we believe we will allowing people back into the evacuated areas. Applause. Yeah. We are excited."
Pribil hopes to let evacuees return home later this morning, but he doesn't yet know a specific time. He stresses they need to have proper ID. And, he says he first wants residents to assess their properties.
"We want to make sure everything's in order, utilities are up and running before you start bringing your trailers and animals back to your home."
The sheriff's department is of course lifting the evacuation because of progress fire crews have made battling the blaze. Lighter winds yesterday slowed the fire's progress, and allowed four air tankers to fight it from above. Still, Dugger Hughes, the incident commander for the team managing the fire, says fire behavior remains extreme.
"I was speaking with the Fort Apache hotshot crew, Lockett Meadow right now is green grass, they said they were getting ambers falling into Lockett Meadow and within about a minute, they had spot fires up and running, so the green grass is even carrying fire right now."
But so far the fire has stopped at the ridge line just above the popular alpine meadow. Hughes says the fire also hasn't reached the Inner Basin yet, although that's not because of the firefighters. Flagstaff has three wells there that provide the city with about 20 percent of its water in the summer.
"We're not doing a bunch of work in the IB, we can't get in there, still trying to hook the sides to get towards it, but it's not moving a whole lot, we're really trying to concentrate as we come in from the north end, coming back to the west, coming down towards the Inner Basin, we want to make sure we don't get something where it pushes out to the west from there, because it's just timber forever."
Crews are also focusing on securing the "heel" of the fire, near where it first started in Schultz Pass. Tonight they plan to light a back burn along Mount Elden to secure the southern edge of the fire. Hughes says the fire is slowly backing down the other side of the pass. That's the smoke people in Flagstaff see. But he says they've put a line in about an eighth of a mile away from the fire's edge.
"What that fire's burning right now, it's active, but it's just backing, cleaning up under the timber, doing a good job of perhaps preventing another large fire in there in future years we're going to let it back down to that line."
Then they'll tie that line up the ridge to Doyle Peak and to the Inner Basin.
"That's going to take us a long time, that is labor, labor intensive work. So it's going to take a while."
About two weeks, according to Hughes. Meanwhile Forest service officials are still trying to find who's responsible for abandoning the campfire that ignited the blaze Sunday. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was asked about the fire's cause at a press conference yesterday, after she toured the fire by air.
"We all know, from the time we're little, when we're in the mountains, that we have to be absolutely sure that our campfires are buried over and out, we learned that as cub scouts, as girl scouts, and it's an unfortunate situation that carelessness leads to this, and it's a disaster."
The Governor also said she spoke with President Obama yesterday, who promised he's supply whatever is needed to get the fire under control.
For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Flagstaff.