Firefighters Enter Critical Phase In Battle Against Willow Fire

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Firefighters face a critical period today (Thursday) as they continue to battle the Willow Fire on its southeast flank.

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A Sikorsky Sky Crane takes water from a bladder at Brunson field in the Tonto National Forest.

"The fire just dealt us a hand we have to play out," Incident Commander Jeff Whitney said Thursday morning. "We're committed; we have to stay with that thing, so we're going to continue to burn through the day.

"It's a very critical point in time and this fire is in a very, very bad spot from a topography standpoint. It's going to be a real busy, busy day."

The fire has jumped containment lines and Highway 87 on several occasions in the past two days, but firefighters have so far been able to turn it back. The plan for the next day or two is to continue burnout operations in an effort to head off the fire before it reaches Mt. Ord with its sophisticated electronic equipment, and with minimal impact on Arizona Public Service's 345 KV power lines southeast of Highway 87.

Those lines were taken out of service for the first time this morning, putting an even greater burden on APS, which recently lost a key Valley substation to fire.

"We decommissioned the line this morning at 0900, and we've been burning down there proceeding from Slate Creek back towards the 188/87 junction," Whitney said at the Thursday morning media briefing. Fire officials expected to reactivate the lines at noon today, in time to help meet the Valley's peak consumption needs.

The rest of the Willow Fire looks good, but firefighters face at least a few more days of intense activity on the southeast flank.

"We just need to get through the next couple of days with our burnout operation and hopefully we can turn the corner somewhere below Sunflower and pretty much bring it due west across that transition between the higher ground and the Sonoran grassland and cut that fire off," Whitney said. "But it's going to take us a little while yet."

As of 11 a.m. Thursday, the fire stood at 109,900 acres and was 25 percent contained. Highway 87 is likely to remain closed the next few days, but Highway 188 should remain open.

The lightning-caused Willow Fire was first reported on June 24 at 4:10 p.m.

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