Fire season began nearly five months early last week when a careless traveler sparked the first of four brush fires in the tinder-dry forests of the Rim country.
The fire burned half an acre south of Payson Feb. 3 and was likely started by something tossed into the brush from Highway 87, said Dan Eckstein, assistant fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service's Payson Ranger District.
Following four mild months with hardly a trace of rain or snow, forests in the Rim country are as dry this winter as they were the summer of 1990, the year lightning sparked the 24,000-acre Dude Fire northeast of Payson, he said.
"There is a higher danger now than there was in July, August and September of last year," he said. "We are in fire season right now."
A second fire flared up Monday a mile west of the Bonita Creek subdivision northeast of Payson.
The three-acre fire was started by an abandoned campfire that hadn't been built inside a fire ring, Eckstein said.
The careless campers left a paper trail behind, providing forest officials with suspects to prosecute and charge for the cost of putting out the fire.
"It's a $250 fine plus suppression costs," Eckstein said, which he estimates at about $1,000.
While that blaze was still smoking, crews were called to a two-and-a-half-acre blaze Tuesday morning in Pine. Eckstein said that fire also was caused by humans, who likely tossed a match or cigarette out a car window the night before.
Just as that blaze was brought under control Tuesday afternoon, a second column of smoke billowed into the sky near Strawberry.
This time the source was a smoldering stump left over from a Forest Service prescribed burn.
Forest Service crews finished burning brush and grasses 12 days ago near Strawberry, and the smoldering ashes were checked several times, Eckstein said. But a warm, dry breeze fanned the ashes, reigniting a stump and burning another two acres.
"We are rechecking (prescribed burn areas) from a month ago," Eckstein said. "Conditions are that extreme."
Kiln-dried lumber, for example, has a moisture content of 7 percent, he said. The logs on the forest floor have a moisture content of 11 percent. They should have a moisture content of 25 to 30 percent at this time of year, he said.
It will take two or three feet of snow and a slow melt-off to lessen the fire danger in the forest, he said. Right now, the only factors weighing against a large-scale fire are the shorter winter days, cool daytime temperatures and sparse number of hikers and campers in the forest, he said.
The Forest Service isn't enforcing campfire restrictions at this time, but forest visitors are asked to be careful with fire, Eckstein said.
The Forest Service is canceling its prescribed burn schedule for now and forest officials ask that residents and visitors report any smoke they see.
If it rains or snows, however, the Forest Service may reschedule some prescribed burns to reduce the fire threat for this summer.
Signs will be posted at all prescribed burns.