FLAGSTAFF — Hundreds of firefighters with a big assist from cooler weather got the upper hand Thursday on a blaze that erupted in the country's largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest and threatened thousands of homes in the mountain community.
"I'd say we're just over the hump," fire safety officer Steve Zavala said as fire officials escorted news media through parts of the burned area. "Again, with thunderstorms, anything can happen but things are starting to look better and quieter."
The fire has burned 3 square miles of dense vegetation in rugged terrain in the Coconino National Forest in Flagstaff. It was about 12% contained Thursday.
Seasonal rains this week helped and allowed residents of roughly two dozen homes to return Wednesday but also raised the risk of flooding. Crews planned to install equipment atop Mount Elden on Thursday to help monitor the weather.
A drying trend is expected in coming days before thunderstorms are back in the forecast next week, officials said.
About a mile from an upscale hamlet of homes that was evacuated, the ground was a mosaic of blackened boulders, grass and trees, and untouched dirt. Smoke rose from tree stumps with short flames that shot up as a breeze swept through the ash.
Fire crews moved through earlier this week cutting tree branches that would have allowed fire to climb up to the crowns and used mostly drip torches to set the landscape ablaze with low intensity. Layers of pine needles, dead grass or small pieces of wood easily caught fire.
The goal was to create a fire break, protecting the homes in a prime recreation area and lessening the effects of potential flooding. On the other side of a gravel road that twists up the mountain, the vegetation was green. Piles of logs and debris from a recent thinning project waited to be picked up.
"You're looking to pick your battle, where can you win?" said John Morlock, a fire safety officer.
Already, rain has carried twigs, rocks and ash down the mountainside and into Flagstaff communities. Residents have been filling sandbags and building them up as barriers against water.
On the mountain, crews use a mix of techniques to stamp out the fire and position trees and debris to divert water so it's "not just channeling down the main drain," said fire information spokesman Joe Zwierzchowski.
A federal team that will analyze the soil and look at ways to stabilize it was expected to start work Friday.
In places where the fire burned more intensely, fire officials say the soil is like a moonscape of fine, white ash, downed trees and hardened soil that sheds water more quickly.
Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans says the sight of the mountain burning has been disturbing but shouldn't deter hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and others from visiting Flagstaff.
"This particular area is going to be scarred but there is something particularly beautiful about a scar that's healed," she said. "That area is going to be different but beautiful."