Pick up the Friday, July 30 print edition of the Payson Roundup newspaper for a copy of this commemorative Willow Fire section. Inside its pages you'll find a day-to-day record of events and lots of photos, many which were submitted by area readers.
Below is the section introduction written by Roundup reporter Jim Keyworth who was assigned as the primary reporter during the Willow Fire:
Willow Fire proved to be a worthy opponent
By Jim Keyworth
Roundup staff reporter
For the Rim country, the Willow Fire is one of those signature events -- like the assassination of President Kennedy, the moon-landing and 9/11. Years from now, we will all be able to remember where we were and what we were doing during its tenser moments.
The lightning-caused fire was first spotted at 4:10 p.m. Thursday, June 24, in the rugged Mazatzal Wilderness Area southwest of town. An unremarkable story in the Payson Roundup the following day read:
"Of the four lightning-caused fires which began yesterday afternoon in the Tonto National Forest, only the 100-acre Willow Fire, six miles east of Horseshoe Lake, continues to be a threat. Both helicopters and hotshot crews are working the fire."
At that point, the fire wasn't even associated with Payson.
But by Sunday evening -- the last day of my vacation - we were beginning to realize that the Willow Fire had the potential to become a monster, and that it was taking dead aim at the Rim country. Instead of a final leisurely evening before returning to work, I found myself attending a media briefing in the parking lot at Payson High School, bathed in the harsh lights of Valley TV crews.
It would be the first of many nights spent at briefings and then at the office updating the fire on payson.com, the Roundup's website. Those twice-daily updates are included in this special section, along with the news stories that appeared in the Roundup.
Together with a special collection of dramatic and powerful photos, many of which were submitted by our readers, they serve as a record of the fire's relentless journey -- sometimes creeping, but more often racing headlong for our community.
Because of its location to the southwest, it was the Rim country's worst nightmare. With the normal flow of wind out of the west and southwest, fires traditionally travel to the northeast.
And the forest between the fire and Payson was ripe. Just a month earlier, Bill Barcus, a range technician for the Payson Ranger District, stood in that very forest between Oxbow Estates and Payson and expressed his concern.
"See how this brush is choked like this? With the right conditions -- the right temperatures and (relative humidities) and winds -- this country could really blow and go, and being on this side of town, the southwest winds would carry it right toward Payson," he said.
The conditions were right, and the fire did just as Barcus had predicted. It started 17 miles from Payson, but by the time its northern and eastern flanks were contained two weeks later, it was just two miles from the town limits.
Firefighters and residents alike breathed a sigh of relief. But the Willow Fire saved some of its best theatrics for last.
Just when it seemed like it was over, the inferno defied nature and turned southeast, jumping Highway 87 and threatening to outflank the containment line that had seemingly saved Payson from disaster.
For those who live in Jake's Corner and Deer Creek, the sight of the fire swirling like a tornado across the Beeline and toward their homes was one they will never forget.
The Willow Fire was building to a crescendo, but in the end, Jeff Whitney, Roy Hall, Buck Wickham and the rest of the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team prevailed.
Whitney said it all with these simple words: "When the fire comes at us and we need to stand, we will."
Pick up a copy of the Payson Roundup at newsstands throughout Rim country.
Subscribe online at payson.com