Highway 87 remains open on an hour-to-hour basis after firefighters were able to hold the line on the Willow Fire Monday.
"We intend on leaving the highway open in the morning," Operations Sections Chief Buck Wickham said at the Monday evening media briefing. "But that could change in a heartbeat. At the rate the fire can make a run, it could be at the highway in two hours."
The possible closure of the main artery to the Valley, from Highway 188 to the Bush Highway/Saguaro Lake turnoff, was predicated on the active behavior of the southeast portion of the fire, but firefighters were able to stop its progress by laying a line of retardant and setting fire behind it by dropping ignition "Ping-Pong balls" from helicopters.
While the strategy to hold the fire between Deer Creek and Bars Canyon, about 13 miles south of Payson and five miles west of Highway 87, was successful, Wickham cautioned that the situation could change quickly.
"It is hot in there, and it has flopped over that ridge a little bit," he said. "But hopefully we can pick it up with aircraft in the morning."
Earlier Monday, fire officials said they hoped that the closure could be averted.
"The best scenario is that the operations' plan today goes great and we don't have to do anything to 87," Liaison Officer James Clawson said. "The fire is dictating everything that we're doing right now."
If the fire makes a run toward the Highway 87, burnouts would be conducted from the west side of the highway to protect the electronic equipment on Mount Ord and other structures. Burnouts that close to the highway would necessitate its closure.
"If we do have to burn out from 87 up in the canyons toward Slate Creek Divide, we're going to create a bunch of problems," Clawson said. "When we burn that vegetation, it's going to cause rocks and boulders to fall into the highway. We may impact the guard rails and numerous things, and all those things are going to have to be mitigated before it's safe to open it up."
The original plan was to close Highway 87 beginning at Payson, but fire officials later decided to move the closure point south to Highway 188 to allow local traffic into Payson from Rye, Round Valley and other communities to the south.
"If (the fire makes a run) and we have to start burning from 87, we're going to move the roadblock down to 188 and we'll pilot the local folks from about Rye to 188," Clawson said. "So anybody needing to go to work in Tonto Basin and Globe can go through. There might be some delays, but Deer Creek, Gisela, and Rye residents and all the others in there will be able to come and go to Payson as needed."
In the event of a closure, alternate routes include:
- Highway 87 north from Payson to Highway 260, then west to Camp Verde, then either north or south on Interstate 17.
- Highway 260 east to Show Low, then south on Highway 60 to Globe, then east on Highway 70 to Safford, or west on Highway 60 to Mesa and Phoenix.
- Highway 87/188 to Globe, then east on Highway 70 to Safford, or west on Highway 60 to Mesa and Phoenix.
Jeff Whitney, incident commander for the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team, said firefighters will do everything they can to avert a closure.
"We recognize we're impacting folks' lives," he said, "but our primary concern at this point remains firefighter and public safety."
Watch payson.com for regular updates.
See highway update story