Despite The Rain, Forest Still Dry

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When the rains came Monday, it seemed like a reprieve from the long, dry spell the area has been experiencing since September.


But the water levels are still down and fire danger in the forest looms.


"But what have we had? -- a fourth-inch, not even a half-inch," said Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker.


Payson weather observer Anna Mae Deming said she measured .03 of an inch from Monday's brief storm and .11 over Wednesday night and Thursday morning.


That's a far cry from 1967 when Deming measured 77 inches of snow on the ground from Dec. 13 to Dec. 22.


"This has been the driest winter since 1948 that I have recorded," she said Thursday.


Although Walker said the town has kept the water tanks full, the ground water levels are down.


"The ground water levels are lower than they were at this time last year, which isn't surprising," Walker said. "Some places are three feet lower, some are two feet lower than this time last year."


Basically, he said, the town has had no recharge.


"If we don't get between eight and 11 inches of precipitation during the winter, you can't get any measurable recharge," he said.


Walker said he'll release information next month which will give area residents a bigger picture of where the town is as far as water, but he did say that water exploration north of Payson has shown that one of five wells drilled so far may be capable of producing up to 100 gallons per minute.


"We hope it's in excess of 100 gpm," he said. "We haven't done a test pump yet."


The town has permits from the Forest Service to drill 14 test wells in the Goat Camp area, but the process of exploration does not offer any quick relief to the town's immediate water problems.


Bob Ortlund, district fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District, said conditions in the forest have been extremely dry as far as forest vegetation and fuels on the ground. Once the live vegetation is dry enough, it gets stressed and is vulnerable to fire. The live vegetation can actually become a part of a wildfire.


"But the rain we had was a help -- it wet things down," he said. "What we really need now is a month or two of storms. If they quit, we'll be right back to where we were -- at extreme fire danger, more like June conditions than February."


Ortlund said if there aren't any more storms between now and summer, the forest will be at potentially extreme fire danger -- similar to the summer of 1990, when the Dude Fire raged for 10 days and destroyed 63 homes.


Lack of snow in the mountains is another factor when looking at the dry conditions that already exist in the forest, he said.


"It's potentially severe right now," Ortlund said. "Without the snow slowly melting off the mountains and providing moisture, it will be severe enough in the higher country."


He said wildfires have already broken out this winter in Strawberry and in Pine, an unusual occurrence for this time of year. "We have been having people-caused wildfires all winter long -- that's highly unusual.


"What we had a few days ago wasn't much -- but it's a start," Ortlund said.


Deming said she hasn't received any long-range forecasts. She only knows two or three days in advance if any snow or rain is predicted.

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