(Tuesday evening update: Fire grows to 32,000 acres.)
As wary Rim country residents try to go about their daily business, the Willow Fire grows increasingly ominous on the southwestern horizon.
Now just seven miles from Payson in the Tonto National Forest's Mazatzal Wilderness Area, the fire grew to over 23,000 acres in size by Monday evening. When the lightning-caused fire started Thursday evening, it was 17 miles from Payson.
The increase in the fire size was based on very low fuel moisture content due to prolonged drought, high temperatures, windy conditions, low relative humidity, and overly dense vegetative conditions that have resulted in unnaturally heavy fuel loading.
Arrayed against the blaze is an arsenal of the best firefighters and equipment available, including the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team led by Jeff Whitney. At Whitney's disposal are 588 firefighters (including 12 Type 1 Hotshot crews and 10 Type 2 crews), two engines, two air attack planes, three helicopters and four dozers.
"We're still getting crews coming in, and the strategy is going to be limited to hand crews and air support," Danny Randall, information officer for the Whitney team, said. "There is no opportunity to get any engines in there. The hand crews have been working in the rougher terrain along the bottoms."
Helicopters continue drawing water from Payson's Green Valley Park lakes to fight the blaze. Burning operations are being conducted when and where possible, but changes in conditions caused firing operations to stop temporarily Sunday night.
"The humidity went up; the temperature conditions weren't right," Randall said. "In order for them to do a burnout of that nature, everything has to be ideal."
On Monday, however, firefighters got their first break.
"Today we were fortunate enough to have a little bit of cloud cover and a little increased relative humidity and a little less wind," Whitney said Monday evening, "and so the nature of the fire was dramatically different from what it was yesterday. We accomplished some good work on the northeast corner of this thing ... but we will be here for awhile."
Weather forecasters are predicting a drying trend over the next few days, and even if firefighters stop the fire where they hope, it will ultimately grow to 140,000 acres in size.
While residents of Doll Baby Ranch have voluntarily evacuated, there is no immediate threat to Payson or other communities.
Payson Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts said he didn't expect the fire to reach the Payson area.
"We never want to say never -- we don't want to do that -- but the chance is remote," Roberts said.
"But it is a very active fire, and we're experiencing things on this fire that we don't normally see. The fire came up North Peak (Saturday) night and that's where it is right now."
Randall added a word of caution.
"There are still a lot of light, flashy fuels on the east side toward Payson that are a real concern now, but the weather will really determine how that's going to go," he said.
"They're trying to do a dozer line on the east end as a secondary backup line, and if we need to we can come back and burn off of that."
Besides the Doll Baby, both the LF and Simonton ranches are in the immediate area of the fire, but all three have been "prepped" according to fire officials.
The fire, which is zero percent contained, will continue to put up significant columns of smoke today.
"No percentage of containment has been given at this point," Randall said on Monday. "The fire is still pretty active right now, so there are still no projections."
Whitney's team has established its base camp at Houston Mesa Campground and Houston Mesa Horse Camp.
A Fire Information Center for the media has been opened at Payson High School.
More information will be kept current on the team website located at: www.fireteam-sw.com/whitney/ or contact can be made with the team via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 468-1230. Current information is also available from the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce offices -- Payson (928) 474-4515 and Pine-Strawberry (928) 476-3547.
Local law enforcement has been assisting the forest service by providing security for the aircraft and setting up roadblocks on Doll Baby Ranch Road.
"We set up the traffic control for the helicopters that were extracting water from the pond," Payson Police Chief Gordy Gartner said.
"We are also providing some security for the airport and assisting with road blocks," the chief said.
Officers have also set up the area at the high school specifically for media briefings, Gartner said.
As for a potential evacuation, Gartner said the police are prepared for that possibility.
"Most of the law enforcement agencies have an evacuation plan in place," Gartner said. "That's exactly what we exercised in May during our evacuation drill. Hopefully we won't have to use it."
Rim country residents are asked to stay out of the way of fire traffic.
"The roads out there are pretty much restricted to fire personnel, because they are rough," Randall said. "There's only one way in and one way out."
Where the fire goes next is anybody's guess.
"It depends on what direction the wind blows it," Randall said.
See Willow Fire web and contact info