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Crews with the Department of Forestry and Fire Management along with area cooperators are working to stop the forward progress of the Roach Fire, burning in the town of Dudleyville in Pinal County southeast of the Valley.
Alden Woods/The Republic

The Roach Fire continued its patchwork crawl through Pinal County Saturday, erupting in seemingly random spots as it eluded fire crews’ attempts to estimate its size or contain the flames.

Evacuation orders remained in place for about 100 homes in Dudleyville, a mining town of just under 1,000 that sits in Pinal County’s San Pedro River basin.

As of Saturday, the fire had destroyed three homes and eight other structures.

As strong winds from a thunderstorm that never came pushed the fire toward the towns of Hayden and Winkelburg, the river valley filled with free-standing towers of smoke.

Official estimates measured the burned area at 1,200 acres as of 3:30 p.m. Saturday, but the Roach Fire’s tendency to skip through treetops and low-lying brush has placed that number in doubt.

“We don’t have any acreage,” said Pinal County Communications Director Joe Pyritz. “It’s just popping up.”

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Pyritz expected total containment to take at least two more days of constant firefighting.

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When the fire sparked Friday night, volunteer firefighters from Dudleyville and neighboring towns rushed into the basin. At first they halted the fire’s spread, but escalating winds soon blew it out of their control.

Fire crews from the surrounding area, including Tucson and Glendale, gathered at a local church to join the effort. The state’s Type III Incident team was expected to take control of the firefighting effort Saturday night.

Fires are often named after nearby landmarks and there’s a Roach Road nearby.

The cause of the fire was still unknown.

Conservationists have long protected parts of the basin as a nature preserve. But the river habitat has presented a paradox. Invasive salt cedar has choked out many drought-stressed native trees and plants. The invasive plants grow into thick, fire-prone brush — but have become the only good nesting habitat for endangered birds that no longer have native trees for nesting. The result is brushy landscape that is bird-safe but sometimes not fire-safe.

Should the flames climb out of the river basin and onto the dry hillsides, fire crews anticipate little to prevent them from reaching Hayden or Winkelman, twin towns less than six miles up State Road 177.

“If this picks up,” Pyritz said with a snap of his fingers, “it could take out Dudleyville and Winkelman like that.”

Despite the warnings, in Dudleyville, home to generations of copper miners, people had already started to slip back into their homes.

As more than a dozen state wildland firefighters streamed past his home and into the fire, Tony Perez and his daughters peered over the metal fence from their backyard. They watched as the firefighters trudged silently past the burned remains of a neighbor’s trailer, just a hundred or so feet from their house.

Fire chewed through the trailer overnight, leaving in its place a still-smoking pile of wires and metal sheeting. Along what was once an exterior wall, a refrigerator stood open, with round tubs of cashews and coffee still inside. A tractor had melted in place.

Two doors down, the Perez family packed their photos and birth certificates when the evacuation order came. They turned the sprinklers on full blast and soaked everything they could.

Then they spent the night at the house of Tony Perez’s parents. 

When they awakened and saw the smoke had started to fade, they asked the police to let them return home.

“You look worried about your home,” a sheriff’s deputy told them.

“I am,” Perez said.

“You’re on your own,” the deputy said, waving them through. “You’ll know when to leave.”

Back home, in sight of the flames and the blackened trailer, Perez and his daughters stayed in the backyard. Most of their neighbors had returned home, too, he said.

Dudleyville is the kind of place where people live and die in the same home.

“I can’t stop it,” Perez said. “I’m just watching.” 

But they still needed somewhere to sleep that night, unwilling to stay in their home without an eye on the flames that were still so close.

At Hayden High School, a few miles up the road, volunteers from the American Red Cross prepared the emergency shelter for a rush of people.

Just two people slept at the high school on Friday night, a Red Cross spokesman said, but downed power lines and the 110-degree heat were expected to force more people out of their homes Saturday night. 

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