A fire that scorched one-tenth of an acre in the Granite Dells area south of Monument Peak early Sunday morning is not necessarily big news, says U.S. Forest Service Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts.
That blaze was extinguished fairly quickly. But it could have been big news and that's the big news.
"Our fire conditions have reached extreme right now," Roberts said. Before the early part of next week, the Forest Service will begin announcing and imposing fire restrictions which initially, at least, will only affect campfires outside established Forest Service campgrounds.
"I'm just projecting, but I really don't expect (the restrictions) to last very long, and we're not looking at closures," says Roberts.
The Payson Ranger District's fire season officially began June 1, and the danger level will continue to increase until the arrival of monsoon season, which usually begins in July.
The Granite Dells fire was the Payson district's 17th of the season, and the 53rd for the Tonto National Forest.
And any one of them could have turned into a catastrophe, Roberts said.
One of several ways the Forest Service evaluates a dangerous fire environment, he says, is through the analysis of "Energy Release Components," or ERCs.
"Without going into great scientific detail, ERCs basically help us to evaluate the moisture content in various fuel classes," Roberts explains. "It lets us know what potential energy is in a certain unit area and how hot that area might burn."
Forest Service research, he says, has shown that whenever ERCs reach a level of 90 or above not just in the Rim country, but anywhere "You're in a pretty dangerous situation."
Right now, Roberts adds, Rim country residents are in a pretty dangerous situation.
"About two weeks ago, our ERCs were in the 60s, which is pretty safe," he said. "But last week, when we had higher temperatures, lower humidity and daily winds, the ERCs had soared to 97."
To illustrate how quickly ERCs can fluctuate, Roberts says the number was back down to a safer but still touchy 81 by Saturday. But they can leap right back up again "when you get the right or wrong variables, such as heat and low humidity levels, to come together."
Roberts, naturally, hopes everyone in Northern Gila County will exercise fire safety and caution throughout the summer, even though conditions are not nearly as frightening as they were one year ago at this time.
"By mid-June of last year, we were already into about two months of restrictions and three weeks of actual forest closures. Our winter precipitation has helped us out this year."
But that doesn't mean that weather history could not repeat itself in 2001, Roberts points out.
"The precipitation does help out, naturally, but it brings a lot of grasses up. That looks great for spring, but as heat increases, those grasses start to brown out, and that makes them a greater potential ... fire hazard."
Perhaps the most effective fire-safety tip anyone needs to remember, Roberts said, is to simply recall the wildfires that swept across the nation last year, burning a chunk of real estate about the size of New Jersey while earning the distinction as the second-worst wildfire season in 40 years.
"Miraculously, the Rim country got through the season without a catastrophic fire," Roberts says, "and it's my desire that we do that again this year."