Tedious but successful burnout operations on the north and east sides of the Willow Fire are reducing the risk to Payson, Pine and Strawberry, but the three communities are a long way from safe.
"When we showed up here, I thought our possibility of success was 50-50, but day-by-day we've done some things to this fire that have increased our advantage," Operations Section Chief Roy Hall said. "But I wouldn't say it's beyond 60-40 now. Let's be humble here. We're in very dry conditions."
The three communities will not be declared safe before next week at the earliest, Hall said.
"The way we've progressed with the successful burnout, we're looking at through the July 4 weekend," Hall said. "But really, the day you see us go away is the day you can say it's over."
Despite two spectacular columns of smoke and an unfounded evacuation rumor, firefighters had a productive day battling the fire Thursday.
One column of smoke close to town was the result of a burnout set by firefighters Thursday afternoon on the east side of the fire.
"It looked close to Payson and it was," Operations Section Chief Buck Wickham said. "That was actually the closest place the fire comes to town. It's about three miles outside of town, but not to be concerned.
That burnout is done to protect Payson from the fire."
The second column Thursday evening had a huge cap on it.
"It was actually over on the western side of the fire," Wickham said.
"The fire had been seated in there to make a run, and it chose to come out today."
Firefighters started a back fire at the East Verde River to hold the run in check.
"As that big run came up, it pulled that fire off the Verde River," Wickham said.
The rumor, that Pine was about to be evacuated, apparently started because firefighters hung flags in the area to direct firefighters to a safety area in the unlikely event the fire reached that community.
"That is not a proposed evacuation route for the citizens," Wickham said.
Today (Friday), firefighters hope to continue burnout operations, strengthen the fireline, and continue work on the Pine/Strawberry fuel break.
A line established by firefighters runs from the Doll Baby Ranch east and then turns south for several miles toward Barnhardt Trailhead. Its location was chosen to give firefighters maximum advantage.
"This is very broken and fractured terrain, and geographically it's very challenging," Hall said. "Where we are right now, and we chose it for a purpose, we can drive to. As we get away from there, we have to provide logistical support to our crews from the air."
Evacuation Trigger Points
Trigger points for notification to prepare to evacuate are the East Verde River to the north for Pine and Strawberry and the fire line to the east for Payson.
"All that means is, ‘Hey, we've got a problem out here," Hall said. "You need to be ready to move."
While the fire has spotted over both trigger points, firefighters have so far been able to douse the resulting fires.
"We had a few little spots that were actually seated in the bottom of the East Verde River," Hall said. "We were able to mitigate those with aircraft late last night. We just kind of put those to bed, cooled them off, and doused them real well with water."
Although the fire is much closer to Payson, Pine and Strawberry are actually at greater risk for evacuation.
"Every day that we can get out there and do a little burning on our backfires, Payson is becoming safer," Operations Chief Buck Wickham said. "I'd say right now there is a real low chance that Payson will need to be evacuated. But if the fire does spot over the East Verde River, that constitutes a whole new problem for Pine and Strawberry."
Another problem firefighters have encountered is a reflection of the dryness and the rocky terrain they face.
"We're having some problems in the afternoons with dozer treads sparking on rocks and causing fires, including a 40-acre fire west of Rye," Hall said. "This is the first I can remember in 25 years where we started fires with dozers. I've heard stories about it happening, but I got to see it on this one. That's how hot and dry it is."
As burnouts continue, firefighters hope for a break from the weather.
"There's three things that really influence a fire: weather, topography and fuels," Hall said. "The weather is just going to get hotter, but we hope we'll get a bump in the moisture, or even a bump in the dew point so that the relative humidity would pick up."
While firefighters are pleased with their progress, Hall sounded a note of caution.
"These communities are still at risk, and the only thing that will take them completely out of risk is for the weather to change," he said.
"That's what I'm counting on."
Even if firefighters stop the fire where they hope, it will ultimately grow to 140,000 acres in size. As it does, Rim country residents can expect to see erratic, often spectacular outbursts.
"There will continue to be runs up in the wilderness as the fire seats itself in some of those canyons," Wickham said.
Both Wickham and Hall cautioned against buying into evacuation rumors.
"I have heard we plan on evacuating these towns and we're not telling anybody," Wickham said. "We won't keep any secrets from you. If it comes to a point where we have to pull the trigger and evacuate those communities, everybody will know."
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