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Willow Canyon evacuated as Bighorn Fire tops 30k acres

With the Bighorn Fire on Mt. Lemmon growing larger — hitting 31,000 acres overnight — the Willow Canyon area is being evacuated Thursday morning. The blaze has pushed north toward the Catalina area, also.

The "GO" evacuation alert issued Thursday covers the area from Organization Ridge Road to South Willow Canyon, the Pima County Sheriff's Department said.

"If you are in this area, EVACUATE NOW. Safely move south on Catalina Highway and leave the mountain. Do not delay leaving the area," PCSD said.

Deputies will be going door to door to make contact with those affected residents who may not have received the message.

An evacuation center is open at Sahuaro High School, 545 N. Camino Seco. Large animal sheltering will be done at Rillito Racetrack, 4502 N. 1st Ave. Pima Animal Care Center will also be housing pets from evacuated homes.

Residents of the area were warned to be "set" to evacuate on Tuesday, when an evacuation was ordered for the Summerhaven area higher up the mountain.

Evacuation & caution areas map

The evacuated areas are indicated in red, with the acres burned by the fire in pink. The areas still under warning to be prepared to evacuate are in yellow. Previously cautioned areas that are no longer threatened by the fire are in green.

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The Catalina Highway has been closed at the base, with only residents and business owners allowed to drive up. Power has been cut on top of the mountain because electrical lines were threatened by the fire.

Burned area tops 31,000 acres

The area burned by the blaze hit 31,200 acres by Thursday morning, Forest Service officials said, and was about 40 percent contained.

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The fire, which started with a lightning strike on June 5, crept over Pusch Ridge and grown along the southern flank of the Catalinas, reaching more than 4,700 acres by last Thursday morning. It had burned about 16,000 acres two days ago.

About 800 firefighters were working the blaze Thursday.

From the Forest Service:

Yesterday, due to high winds, the fire made a large push to the north, growing by over 7,000 acres. Today, fire managers anticipate the fire will move towards Charouleau Gap, depending on wind direction and temperatures. Fire crews and air support are in place preparing and widening fire lines for this expected spread of the fire. On Mt. Lemmon, the fire moved through Oracle Ridge and generated spot fires in Stratton Canyon. Expect highly visible smoke as those areas burn together today. Crews working overnight implemented controlled burns along the Catalina Highway corridor. Firing operations will continue today, if necessary, to protect values at risk.

Air operations including fixed-wing airtankers were up early this morning, dropping water and fire retardant to slow the fire’s spread. Winds will continue to be a factor today, but less so than yesterday. The fire burning in the Ventana Canyon area and along Samaniego Ridge will be monitored by air support today. Minimal downslope backing of the fire is anticipated in that area. Crews will tie together the two containment lines north of the fire perimeter to protect the communities of Oracle and San Manuel.

From Pima County:

Ready, Set, Go is the state's evacuation alert system. The three steps encourage Arizonans to get READY by preparing now for what threatens their community, to be SET by maintaining awareness of significant danger, and to GO, to evacuate immediately when the danger is current and life-threatening.

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Lookie-loos asked to stay away

Authorities asked over the weekend that the public avoid the Oro Valley/Catalina area "unless they are going to their homes or conducting business," because congestion from non-residents is "creating roadway dangers for both emergency personnel and people traveling in the area."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The Bighorn Fire atop the Santa Catalina Mountains on Thursday.