Firefighters may not take the drastic step of closing I-17 this holiday weekend — but they ask Valley residents to consider it closed nonetheless.
Officials said it’s impossible to predict whether the 199,368-acre Cave Creek Complex fire will force them to close the main escape route from the scorching Valley. That uncertainty — coupled with heavy traffic on Interstate 17 — means drivers will run into less trouble if they take a longer route out of town, said Jack Lane, chief of the highway patrol at the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
"We’re trying to plan for the worst but anticipate the best," Lane said.
The alternate routes, through Payson or Prescott, will take at least another hour. But drivers might get stuck in delays of five or six hours if firefighters had to suddenly close I-17 and turn traffic around, Lane said.
Drivers should consider leaving Saturday morning so highways aren’t as crowded Friday evening, Lane said. The possible closures mean drivers should pack extra water and food.
"We need to anticipate that the alternate routes will be very crowded at times and we encourage drivers to practice some patience," said Doug Nintzel, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
The closure would start at the Carefree Highway and go to Cordes Junction. The alternate routes:
• From the East Valley: State Route 87, also known as the Beeline Highway. This goes through Payson, Pine and Strawberry. North of Strawberry, drivers can take Route 260 to reach I-17.
• From the West Valley: The Carefree Highway to U.S. 60, which goes through Wickenburg. Drivers then use state Route 89 to reach Prescott. This continues to Interstate 40, or drivers can go east through Prescott to I-17.
As inconvenient as the timing is, firefighters said an I-17 closure could be critical to halting the blaze and to saving New River and Black Canyon City. Those communities are the most at risk as the fire spreads, yet officials said the fire is still far enough away that they don’t expect they’ll order people to leave their homes.
"At this point, we’re not even talking about evacuations," Jeff Whitney, the incident commander for the fire’s southern zone.
Crews began a backburning operation near I-17 on Thursday that will kick up large amounts of smoke and ash in the coming days. The backburn is about three miles east of I-17 and should move east as winds push it into the west-moving wildfire. The idea behind the backburning is that the fires will meet in the middle and fizzle out as they exhaust their fuel supply.
The backburning could char 40,000 acres and will push the blaze’s destruction well beyond 200,000 acres.
The possible highway closure could come today if the fire spreads rapidly in the morning, but firefighters said the chances for closures grow stronger Saturday and through the long weekend. Mornings are the most likely time for a closure because smoke will stay closer to the ground then.
Firefighters said extremely low humidity and high heat will remain a challenge, yet they remain optimistic their plans will keep it from destroying any communities. Conditions deteriorated Thursday as winds picked up, but the gusts weren’t a significant setback.
"The conditions are very bad but we’re prepared for it," Whitney said. "The fire did not surprise us at all and that’s good."
The fire’s northern flank continued its third day of sluggish movement, remaining about 25 miles from Strawberry and Pine. Firefighters kept working on fire breaks that should stop the fire along the Verde River. Should that plan fail, they cleared a sevenmile, 330-foot wide fire break near Pine and Strawberry.
But crews said they expect their work on the Verde River will keep the fire from going north, said Don Howard, the fire chief for the Summit Fire Department who is working to protect structures in the event of a fire near Pine and Strawberry.
"We feel very confident about the fire not getting in the Pine-Strawberry area," Howard said.
Thursday: The fire grew west toward Interstate 17 as crews prepared fire lines and started a backburn operation east of the highway. Firefighters also kept working on fire breaks along the Verde River and at other points north.
Today: Many firefighters will catch a break as they let a backburn operation clear fuel east of I-17, by New River and Black Canyon City. The burn will kick up large amounts of smoke and ash. Authorities ask weekend travelers to avoid I-17.
Saturday and the weekend:
Crews that took a day off will likely return to work as backburning operations continue.