When national forest officials talk about dry conditions, it's more a matter of science than mere conjecture.
The U.S. Forest Service measures water content in trees and brush to monitor the condition of the forest.
Dan Eckstein, assistant fire manager at the Payson Ranger District, said the Forest Service has been taking live field samples, weighing scrub oak when it's first picked, then drying it, and weighing it after.
Eckstein said tests show that moisture content in the brush species is about 78 percent, which is fairly normal for this time of year.
But the brush is dormant until the soil temperature increases. The normal range for moisture in the brush then goes to 220 to 240 percent.
"In 1996, it dropped to 42 percent," Eckstein said. "It depends on the soil moisture in April. We're keeping track of it every two weeks."
The Forest Service is also keeping track of the dead fuel in the forest and has found that the larger heavy logs are extremely dry right now, at 12 percent moisture.
"A normal winter, you get snow on them," Eckstein said. "That's when the snow saturates the logs, but that hasn't happened this year."
In 1996, a year that was drier than the year of the Dude Fire, there were closures in the forest; restrictions came on early. Eckstein said large areas of the forest were completely closed to the public.
Will we see a repeat of that situation in the summer of 1999?
"Part of it will have to do with the weather -- it's hard to tell," Eckstein said. "We'll probably be in campfire and smoking restrictions by May if we don't get moisture."
And then again, the restrictions may be put in place a lot sooner.
So far this winter, Payson has had three small fires in the forest. Eckstein said it's unusual to have fires at all in January and February.
Outside of town, the Tonto National Forest has had 20 fires. "We normally have around five -- it's just starting earlier," he said.
The Forest Service is working with the Northern Gila County Urban/Wildland Interface Commission, which includes local fire departments, to track conditions.
The commission is also putting together a public information packet to let people know what they can do to reduce the fire hazard on their property and in the forest. Eckstein said he expects to have the packet available next month.
"Basically, if people start cleaning up their yards, removing the brush and raking the needles around their houses, that would reduce fire hazard," Eckstein said. "They could also clean their gutters and roofs and make sure their fireplace ashes are cold when they dump them."
To protect the forest, Eckstein said smokers should keep their cigarette butts in their vehicles' ashtrays, and make sure their campfires are out.
A small fire in Pine on Sunday was started by some children playing with matches. "We're asking parents to make sure kids don't get matches or lighters," Eckstein said.
In April, the Forest Service will have some programs in the schools and will be talking to children at church and scout camps in the area.
But there is no immediate talk about closing off the forest to the public.
"If conditions continue, closing the forest is a possibility if we're starting to get fires that are creating problems." Eckstein said. "It all depends on the weather."