Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team Commander Jeff Whitney has fought a lot of fires in his time. And while there's no such thing as a routine wildfire, the Willow Fire did some things that he had never seen before -- especially on its southeast flank.
"Typically, they don't move against the wind or against the topography very often like that," Whitney said. "Fire runs upslope 16 times faster than it goes downslope.
"But there's a lot of topographic features up there, so you had a lot of local factors with a lot of eddying winds and that sort of thing. So the fire was moving in a lot of different directions."
When the fire's progression map indicated the potential for problems on the southeast flank, Whitney and his team decided they needed to extend the dozer line further south than originally planned to try and head it off.
"We knew we needed to continue with the dozer line off the Barnhardt Trailhead or it would try to get in behind the Bar-T-Bar Ranch," Whitney said.
"We were hoping that the fire would give us an opportunity to meet it as it came around the corner similar to what we did on the East Verde River, but then we got that firestorm that pushed across (Highway 87) on both the north and south of 188. We were fortunate to pick that up."
When that happened on Wednesday of last week, Whitney said the fire jumped Highway 87 because it created "fire whirls akin to tornadic activity." On Sunday, with the fire almost completely contained, he said it could have been worse.
"It was a pretty good tornadic circulation behind the Bar-T-Bar, and it was setting up," the 35-year firefighting veteran said. "It was setting up and I was afraid this thing was going to come racing across there. We get fire whirls on a regular basis. We see that all the time just because of the instability, but this thing was 100 yards across or better and it was starting to pick up steam."
That's when Whitney and his firefighters got a major break.
"The first one fell apart," he said. "It looked like it was winding up and it was going to blow across the road and we were going to have our hands full. But it just fell apart, and when it did, two juniper trees fell out of the smoke from well over my head. I hadn't seen that before. That's how strong those winds were -- probably 50- to 60-mile winds. In probably three minutes it formed, built up speed and fell apart."
Whitney's team was able to hold the line at Highway 87, and then set the successful burnouts on Thursday that finally brought the Willow Fire to its knees. It was declared 100 percent contained Monday night.
But while the most dramatic moments occurred when the fire made its run to the southeast, this was an inferno that presented unique challenges from the very start -- and the Rim country was literally in the line of fire.
"It was logical based on the fire and what it was doing coming off the face of North Peak the first day that Pine and Strawberry were in harm's way, more so than payson at that point just because of the way it was lined up, and the topography, and the fact that we had Rock Creek and Pine Creek. We were able to go ahead and initiate the line that we burned off of at the same time we were protecting the LF and Doll Baby ranches and trying to hold the fire south of the East Verde."
But it took longer than anticipated to complete burnout operations along the line due to high nighttime humidity, extreme heat, and those variable winds.
"We were frustrated probably for a week trying to get that line squared away on down to Rye -- to secure the line so the fire wouldn't get into payson."
Whitney attributes his team's ultimate success to several factors, including experience and a methodical strategy.
"We're really cognizant of the weather and the fuels conditions and the topography and the proximity of the communities," he said. "We very clearly set our order of priorities up front. It's a series of decision points, and you get that one checked off the list of priorities and you move to the next."
It's also critical that the incident commander project an image of calm and control.
"I can't afford to get excited because that's infectious," he said. "I can't afford to get distraught. Even though inside I may be, externally I have to project a certain amount of confidence and control and leadership."
Whitney projected that image early on when he talked about saving payson, Pine and Strawberry at a media briefing.
"We're doing everything we can to suppress it, but 140,000 acres is a pretty big piece of real estate," he said. "We're trying to pick our fight, and when we need to we'll take our fight to the enemy. When the fire comes at us and we need to stand, we will."
Ten days later, when the Willow Fire came at them on the southeastern flank, Whitney and his firefighters were true to those words. They made their stand and turned it back.