Town officials are asking residents to conserve water and U.S. Forest Service officials fear the worst. They're taking precautions against what has been determined to be the driest winter in more than a decade.
Precipitation from rainfall and snow melt this winter measures just 3.74 inches, nearly six inches less than what town officials say is needed to recover ground-water levels.
Town Water Specialist Karen Probert said winter is traditionally a time of recovery for Payson's underground aquifer after a summer of increased population and irrigation. She said that unless the weather changes dramatically, the aquifer will not adequately recover from the effects of last year's ground-water pumping.
Mike Ploughe, the town's hydrogeologist, said town officials are not anticipating any water use restrictions, but they are asking people to conserve water.
"As the wells pump, they're taking water from the aquifer," he said. "When the aquifer hasn't been recharged, water levels drop and pumping declines proportionately -- it varies with each well."
Ploughe said this happens each summer, regardless of the recharge. However, when water use exceeds what can be pumped, the water from the town's storage tanks provide the needed water for consumption, irrigation and firefighting.
"The big issue this year is the outdoor irrigation and having adequate water in the storage tanks," Ploughe said. "I've heard it will be critical to maintain enough water in our storage tanks for fire protection."
Fire protection is also a concern for the Payson Ranger District.
Dan Eckstein, assistant fire manager in Payson, said the Tonto National Forest is approaching high fire danger.
"We're still doing prescribed burns, but smaller areas," Eckstein said. "We're getting fuel along the road, burning to reduce fire danger south of Pine. Normally, this time of year it would be too wet."
Eckstein said it's been an unusual year. The Forest Service will be putting its fire engines, lookouts and patrols on duty in March, a month earlier than usual.
The firefighting Hot Shots will also come on duty a month earlier than usual, at the end of March.
"It looks like it's drier than in '96," Eckstein said. "At this time it looks like it could be a real severe year in the pines."
Pat Velasco, fire manager for the Payson Ranger District, said the fire season, which traditionally starts in mid-or-late-April, has already begun.
"It's real early for the fire season to start," he said Wednesday afternoon. As he spoke, firefighters were putting out a small brush fire in Pine-Strawberry.
Gisela had a fire Sunday. Payson has had four brush fires on city land. Two other fires occurred this week in Pine-Strawberry.
The Forest Service and Payson and Pine fire departments are working south of Pine to eliminate some of the volatile fuel, the dry needles from the Ponderosa pine and the chaparral understory, Velasco said.
Smoke an issue
On Wednesday, Velasco was at the site of the prescribed burns on either side of Highway 87 south of Pine. Small, controlled flames consumed the fuel on the forest floor. White smoke rose up in the air, crossed the highway and filled the trees.
"But do we want a little bit of smoke like we have here, or do we want a fire like the Dude Fire?" he asked.
The amount of smoke these burns put in the air is monitored by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the crews are limited to burning 30 acres a day. Velasco said they'll continue the prescribed burning through next week.
In 1990, when the Dude Fire hit the area, killing six firefighters, burning 63 homes and destroying 24,000 acres in three forests, Velasco said he knew conditions were ripe for such a tragedy.
"I knew it would happen somewhere," he said. "And this year, I'm nervous. I hope the public is aware. You can't fool Mother Nature."
Velasco has prepared for such a fire by creating a 300-foot fuel break around Pine and Strawberry. There's also a fuel break at the Pine Trailhead, a popular spot for campers and hikers.
"The forest is uncommonly dry," Velasco said. "It's not business as usual out there. We're going to have to be damned careful out there. My only hope is that nobody gets burned."