As operations on the north and east side of the Willow Fire begin to wind down, firefighters are focusing on the fire's growing southeast side.
"Now our concern is the southeast corner right above Deer Creek," Operations Section Chief Roy Hall said. "We're trying to keep this fire from getting seeded into Deer Creek."
A possible closure of Highway 87 was averted Monday when firefighters used burnouts to hold the fire between Deer Creek and Bars Canyon, about 13 miles south of Payson. Operations Section Chief Buck Wickham said hotshot crews will now be deployed to hold the fire in check.
"We'll insert them by Catherine Peak and have them start working west," he said. "If we're successful in doing that, we take a lot of different issues out of play. We take the closure of Highway 87 out of the question and we won't have to turn off the large (power lines)."
Incident Commander Jeff Whitney called the use of hotshot teams the beginning of the end.
"That's really an encouraging sign, because that's kind of the last step to initiate the final containment of this fire," Whitney said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the fire is in good shape, officials said.
"The main part of the fire that was closest to Payson has been secured and that looks very, very good," Hall said. "We feel a lot better about Payson today; we've got confidence in what we've got in place there. The East Verde (River) looks exceptional, very exceptional. The entire west side of the fire is in exceptional shape."
Firefighters have completed a containment line that runs from the Doll Baby Ranch east and then turns south for several miles to the Barnhardt Trailhead. Now they are extending the line south.
"We're taking off from Barnhardt and going south with dozer lines, using the roads as much as possible," Hall said. "At some point in time, we tie (that line) in with the (southeast corner of the fire) and button it up."
So far, firefighters also have been successful holding the fire at the East Verde River on the north side. While Pine and Strawberry are at slightly more risk than Payson, those communities also are getting safer with each passing day, officials say.
Smoke and ash continue to be a problem for Rim country residents, but Wickham cautioned against overreacting.
"I know there's a lot of people concerned about the increase in smoke, and it is laying over town, but all this smoke really hasn't hurt us too much," he said."The fire has increased in size and we've lost more of the wilderness, but as far as it impacting a community, it doesn't constitute a significant threat at this time. So it's a big show, but not much threat to Payson or any of the other communities."
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano flew over the Willow Fire for a firsthand look Saturday morning. After meeting with firefighting and forest personnel, Napolitano said she was confident that the suppression effort is in capable hands.
"I don't think there are any firm time limits or acreage limits in terms of how long this fire will burn or how far it will go," she said. "Some of the flames down there are pretty spectacular."
As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, the fire stood at 85,000 acres and is 17-percent contained. Only one structure, an uninhabited cabin, has been lost.
Tonto National Forest Supervisor Karl Siderits announced Monday that the forest's entire 3,000,000 will be closed to campfires, smoking and all other burning effective at 8 a.m. today (Tuesday).
See the Payson Roundup's Tuesday print edition for a current Willow Fire perimeter map or see perimeter and progression maps online.
Watch payson.com for regular updates.
The Type 1 Southwest Fire Management Team has set up a website, e-mail and phone numbers for residents to get information about the Willow Fire.
FOR FIRE INFORMATION
The Payson Police Department has opened a new phone line to provide the public with the most current information on the Willow Fire and any possible evacuation plans. Call (928) 474-5242, ext. 320.
Current information is also available from the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce offices -- Payson (928) 474-4515 and Pine-Strawberry (928) 476-3547.