STRAWBERRY, AZ — Officials announced Sunday that evacuation orders for Strawberry and Hunt Ranch were lifted due to the Backbone Fire.
In a Facebook post, the Gila County Sheriff's Office said the areas of Strawberry and Hunt Ranch will be moving into SET status, allowing residents to return home at 4 p.m. today.
Pine residents were moved to SET status, allowing them to return to their homes Saturday morning.
The Arizona Department of Transportation tweeted Saturday that the SR 87 northbound closure has been moved to milepost 270.
Officials will be allowing only Pine residents access to the area. Residents should be prepared to show documentation of Pine residency.
FIRE CLOSURE UPDATE: The SR 87 northbound closure has been moved to milepost 270. Officials are allowing residents of Pine only to access the area. #aztraffic— Arizona DOT (@ArizonaDOT) June 26, 2021
As of Sunday morning, the fire has grown to 40,855 acres and remains 35% contained.
Pine and Strawberry are small towns north of Payson, which is about 100 or so miles northeast of Phoenix.
"Residents should evacuate immediately to a shelter or with family or friends outside of the affected area," the Gila County Sheriff's Office said in a Facebook post Friday.
On Saturday, the Gila County Sheriff's Office said Highway 87 north of Payson and Highway 260 between Camp Verde and State Route 87 all remain closed due to the fire.
The Fossil Creek recreation area, which includes Waterfall Trail, Irving/Flume, Tonto Bench, Fossil Creek Bridge, Homestead, Sally May, Purple Mountain, and Mazatzal trails, are closed.
The Backbone Fire was reported around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday and quickly grew to 6,000 acres by Thursday evening.
It was a quick evacuation order for residents of Strawberry and Pine, too.
"The house can burn down but not the pets,” says John Rockwell, who was evacuated from Pine.
John Rockwell is just thankful he could grab his chickens, Iris and Lily. He hasn't had to evacuate for a fire since Rodeo-Chediski in 2002.
"Hurry up and pack up the last of the stuff. The dog food, the chicken food, get the chickens in the car and the dog in the car, some water, and off we went,” says Rockwell.
The Backbone Fire sparked by lightning on June 16. The hot, dry, and windy weather conditions have presented challenges to crews, along with limited access to the area.
"My neighbor called me from the Valley and he says ‘hey, it's GO, get out of there now.’ So, we did,” says Olivia Schiffer, who was also evacuated from Pine. "I've been there for 25 years; I've started from the ground up. I was hoping that some of the older people that I know stay safe, I think they're out by now."
Evacuees were stuck in traffic on their way to Payson. Some say it took them an hour and a half to get there.
The Payson Unified School District says they are here to help those people, along with their pets and livestock. They are trying to accommodate all situations.
“It may not be the most comfortable-like home but we will do the best we can to make it like home. At the same time, it's here if they need it. This is a time where if they've left their homes, we can't control that and just leave it in the hands of our brave men who are out there fighting it for us,” says Linda Gibson, Payson USD superintendent.
Rim Country Middle School in Payson is the Red Cross evacuation center for Strawberry and Pine evacuees.
A shelter was also established at the Payson High School Dome as of Saturday night.
More than a dozen wildfires are currently burning in Arizona, most notably the Telegraph and Mescal Fires southeast of Phoenix, near Globe/Superior, which has burned 237,000 acres, according to officials.