Thick billowing clouds of gray and black smoke hung over Thatcher and Safford much of Saturday after a river bed fire that began Wednesday flared up again. Crowds of people gathered along the Gila River to watch the huge flames tower over emergency vehicles.

On Wednesday afternoon a Thatcher man was burning scrap wood and other construction materials near Porter Lane when the fire got away from him and entered the river bed, authorities said.

Firefighters eventually suppressed the fire, but Thatcher Fire Chief Mike Payne said the fire flared up again Saturday afternoon and crossed over into the Safford Fire Department’s jurisdiction.

“They were trying to do a back burn and I think it got away from them,” Payne said around 6 p.m.

There was talk of trying to do another back burn further east of the fire later this evening, but it wasn’t possible at 6 p.m.

“There’s no way we can stop it right now. It’s just huge big flames and we can’t get in front of it or we’ll be burned up. By the time it passes through it’s already burned everything,” Payne said.

There are no structures in danger, but the Safford Bridge is about two miles from the fire, he said.

On Thursday Payne had estimated the fire would smolder for a week before it is completely out, but didn’t rule out the possibility of the wind kicking up the flames again.

The fire remains under investigation and a report was expected within two or three days, sheriff’s officials said Thursday.

Criminal charges are possible.

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