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Wildfire near Patagonia is 12% contained, has burned 11,600 acres

Wildfire near Patagonia is 12% contained, has burned 11,600 acres

  • Sonoita Elgin Fire District
  • Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management

Fire crews working the San Rafael Fire southeast of Patagonia were able to hold their containment lines despite "red-flag" conditions Monday, and fire officials expect Tuesday will bring some relief from critical fire weather.

Driven by high winds, the San Rafael Fire grew around 1,000 acres Monday, burning through grassland around 22 miles southeast of Patagonia, Ariz. The fire pushed north through Canelo Pass expanding its total area to around 11,600 acres.

"Yet, even with yesterday’s Red Flag Warning, the fire did not see much additional growth," said Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman for Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. "Firefighters were able to keep it within its current footprint and keep the fire from pushing through established containment lines."

The fire is now 12 percent contained, officials said.

However, the fire "remains active on the northern and southwestern sides, with hot spots, smoldering and creeping being reported within the fire’s interior," said Davila, adding that "pockets of interior fuel continue to burn, therefore as afternoon winds increase, smoke may be visible to nearby communities."

Fire officials said that the weather had calmed, but said afternoon winds could gust up to 30 miles per hour.

Between hand crews, engines, water tenders, and aircraft—including a helicopter assigned to attack hot spots— around 200 people are working the fire. Firefighters will work to build containment lines along the southern and western edges of the fire, and will mop up along containment lines on the eastern front.

With calming weather, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office lifted "Go" and "Set" evacuation notices for residents, with the exception for people in the Canelo South area, which remains in "Set" condition. Residents nearby should remain ready to evacuate in case the fire shifts again, or the weather changes.

Officials said that Forest Road 799—along known as Canelo Pass Road—is closed for firefighter safety as crews continue to work along the road. They added that crews are finding people in the burn area, and asked for people to remain clear because of hazards in the area post-burn, including ash pits. 

"As with any wildfire incident, conditions are constantly changing and it is essential people be prepared and stay aware," said Davila. "Residents should sign up for emergency notifications through their county’s emergency management website and put together a 'go bag'."

"A 'go bag' should include important documents or papers, prescriptions, photos, money, snacks and water that one can grab quickly during the evacuation process," she said.

The fire began Saturday around 6:30 p.m. in the San Rafael State Natural Area—a 90,000 acre refuge that includes two natural springs—and chewed through a "heavy grass crop" over the weekend. The fire now encompasses an area near Lochiel at the U.S.-Mexico border toward Canelo, a ghost town in the Coronado National Forest about 55 miles southeast of Tucson. 

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, officials said. 

On Sunday night, fire crews took advantage of decreased fire activity and worked by hand to create new fire-lines to help slow the wildfire's forward progress, however, officials warned that red flag conditions Monday may "hinder daytime fire suppression efforts" warning that high winds, low relative humidity, and dry fuels could allow the fire to quickly spread, and move erratically. This would make direct fire suppression efforts unsafe, said Toiffany Davila, a spkeswoman for Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. 

Arizona Forestry hand crews, along with federal and local firefighters—including the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District—worked through Sunday night and Monday to halt the fire's progress, including nearly 120 personnel and multiple aircraft—including Very Large Air Tankers, modified airliners that can drop thousands of gallons of fire retardant at once.

Along with the VLATs, multiple helicopters were deployed.

On Sunday night, the fire pushed 12 miles to the northeast, burning through a very dry grass crop, Davila said.

Officials predicted that winds out of the southwest would push the fire north and northeast beyond Canelo Pass toward Canelo—a ghost town that includes several buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places, including a one-room schoolhouse and a Forest Service ranger station. By Tuesday morning, the fire pushed north through Canelo Pass.

Notably, the fire did not consume the San Rafael ranch house which sits on what was once the Greene Ranch about a mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border near the wildfire's southern edges. Instead, the fire appears to have burned past the historic building.

On Monday, residents who live south of State Route 83 near Canelo Pass Road and Forest Road 799 were evacuated. The Santa Cruz Sheriff's Office told residents northeast of State Route 83 and Forest Road 799—known as Canelo Pass Road—to be in "set" condition, which means they should be prepared to leave their homes quickly.

Firefighting officials said they established "trigger points" that establish when they will tell residents to evacuate based on current and "expected fire behavior," Davila said. 

They added that the Arizona Trail from Parker Canyon Lake to Harshaw Road is closed due to the fire.

"But as with any wildfire incident, conditions can change quickly and residents are urged to stay alert and be mindful of their surroundings."

A shelter has been set up in Patagonia at the United Methodist Community Church, 387 McKeown Ave., though officials warned that while State Route 83 is open, "road conditions can change at any given time." Drivers should check 511 for updated conditions.

The Horse'n Around Rescue Ranch has offered trailers for residents who need help evacuating horses or other livestock, officials said. The ranch can be reached at 520-907-8765 or 520-266-0236. 

This is the second wildfire in Southern Arizona this season. On April 30, officials announced that the Locklin Fire had been effectively contained after burning through 112 acres of brush and grass northwest of Bisbee.

On Friday, Arizona Forestry and Fire Management announced Stage 1 fire restrictions across 10 of the state's 15 counties, including Maricopa and Yuma Counties, limiting camp fires and smoking on public lands through the rest of the summer. Further, some districts will limit target shooting because of fire conditions.

Officials also reminded the public yet again, that fireworks and exploding targets are not allowed on federal or state trust lands. In 2018, Border Patrol Agent Dennis Dickey pleaded guilty to starting a fire that ripped through nearly 50,000 acres. Dickey shot at a target containing the explosive Tannerite during a gender-reveal party starting the fire that threatened Empire Ranch and required a massive response of nearly 800 firefighters.

That fire, which became known as the Sawmill Fire, burned near Sonoita, about 10 miles to the northwest of the current San Rafael Fire.

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