Forest, Fire Crews Weather Season's First Lightning Storm

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Over the past three days, lightning-caused fires have kept fire crews scrambling through the Tonto and Coconino national forests, stamping out small fires before they burn out of control.

Between the two forests, Coconino fire crews were the busiest, responding to eight fires Saturday, 11 Sunday and two Monday, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

The largest cluster of fires was extinguished near Happy Jack and Hutch Mountain about 35 miles north of Payson. The fires Monday were spotted near Mormon Lake.

In the Payson Ranger District, suppression crews responded to one fire Saturday and four fires Sunday.

The fires in the Payson Ranger District were all reported by the Diamond Point lookout station and were immediately contained, Payson Ranger District spokesperson Bea Day said. None of the fires burned more than a tenth of an acre, she said.

The fires in both forests, officials said, were caused by the thunderstorms that rolled through the area last weekend.

The storm that swept into the Rim country Saturday dropped enough rain on the Tonto to alleviate the fire danger created by the lightning strikes, Day said.

But that wasn't the case in the Coconino, where the storms contained little moisture.

"There wasn't a lot of rainfall ... it was spotty and not consistent," said Coconino National Forest official Karen Malis-Clark.

Although Coconino fire crews were kept scrambling, they were able to extinguish all the fires before they could become troublesome.

Those fires also were reported by Forest Service lookouts.

According to Malis-Clark, firefighters in the Coconino much like those in the Tonto are on heightened alert and are ready to roll as soon as a fire is reported.

Two 20-person crews representing the Hopi and Navajo nations are stationed south of Flagstaff, Malis-Clark said, and a crew from North Carolina and one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are on hand, as well.

In the Payson Ranger District, two visiting engine crews from Montana stand ready to supplement the efforts of local firefighters.

Although the rain last weekend brought moisture levels up slightly, it didn't provide enough moisture to prompt forest officials to reopen campgrounds and sections of the forests that were closed earlier this month due to extreme fire dangers, Day and Malis-Clark said.

About 170,000 acres within the Payson and Pleasant Valley Ranger Districts are currently closed to everyone except area property owners and the holders of special-use permits.

Additionally, 18 of the 50 campgrounds in the area are closed and there is a ban on all campfires in both the Tonto and Coconino forests.

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