North Rim wildfire burns thousands of acres

An estimated 7,000 acres have been scorched in the North Rim wildfire and efforts continued early this week to put the finishing touches on containing the blaze.

The fire’s worst day appeared to be Thursday when it made its way from Grand Canyon National Park north into Kaibab National Forest. By the weekend, winds had died down, hundreds of additional firefighters had arrived and air support could be utilized.

By Saturday, there were about 800 firefighters working the fire’s perimeter. The concentrated efforts that day were along the southwest corner of the fire to provide additional protection for the North Rim’s developed area.

“Lines were established around the developed area,” National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Tepper said. “The southwest flank is being focused on. They just want to make sure in case the fire turns back.”

On Sunday, there were 35 fire crews at the site with efforts concentrated on the wester areas of the fire.

The closest the fire got to the North Rim structures was reported to be around four miles. The winds sent the fire mostly to the northeast.

Air operations included seven helicopters, three tankers and one lead plane. They took advantage of the weather to do bucket drops. Officials were considering reducing that type of activity as winds picked up again.

Bob Summerfield, fire information officer, said increasing winds were expected for early this week, therefore, precautionary measures were the main focus.

The fire began as a prescribed burn on April 25 in the Outlet Canyon and Widforss Point areas. It was declared a wildfire at 8:30 p.m. on May 9 due to lack of available fire crews and a forecast for high winds. Those high winds did materialize the following day and the fire was driven outside project boundaries.

On Wednesday afternoon, the blaze crossed Highway 67 prompting its closure. Prior to that time, however, some visitors had voluntarily left the park.

Still, there were 357 people who would spend the night Wednesday, 347 of those in the developed area and another 10 at Cape Royal. Most of those staying were concessioner and National Park Service employees. Several dozen visitors who had stayed overnight were escorted out of the park Thursday morning.

There were also turkey hunters in the area late last week. Officials asked those hunters to stay on the west side of Highway 67.

Control of the fire was transferred from the National Park Service to an interagency Type II Overhead team on Thursday morning. Fire crews were initially used to establish a line around the developed area and to clear fallen or burned trees from Highway 67.

Additional crews were ordered to the site, including a Type I emergency team that arrived Friday. As of that day, 230 people were working at the site, most of those being field workers.

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“We’re pretty happy with the fact that winds have died down and temperatures are cooling,” Tepper said Friday.

The NPS is trying to emphasize to the public that the fire has not impacted the South Rim. It’s business as usual on the South Rim and views of the Grand Canyon have been impacted very little due to smoke going off to the north and east. Tepper said there was some blue haze Friday morning with Bright Angel Canyon seeing more concentrated smoke.

The fire crossed over into Kaibab National Forest, but fire information officials were not sure exactly how much because of sketchy information coming in from that agency. By the weekend, though, it was reported that most of the fire was still in GCNP.

Kaibab National Forest did remain open to visitors, although campfire restrictions are in effect throughout Arizona. There were also limited closures at Nankoweep and Saddle Mountain.

Visitors to the area are encouraged to check with the Visitor Center at Jacob Lake for updated conditions, including road closure information.

As for the North Rim, it was closed as of Monday. The fire information office said there is an estimate that it could take several days for containment of the fire, although the road could potentially open.

A decision to reopen lodges, roads and trails must be based on weather, fire and smoke conditions, Summerfield said.

Among the places closed on the North Rim is the North Kaibab Trail down to Roaring Springs. Erroneous press reports had the Grand Canyon Lodge opening on Monday, but the NPS said it was too early to anticipate when the closed sections of the park would open.

A decision to reopen roads, lodges and trails will be based on weather, fire and smoke conditions, officials said.

Several agencies and tribes have combined forces to fight the fire. Crews from the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Hualapai, Navajo, Hopi, Fort Apache, Arizona Public Safety, State of Arizona and Coconino County Sheriff’s Department joined the effort.

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