Fire danger is expected to climb into the high to very high range in the next few days as the Payson Ranger Station and local fire departments gear up for the summer forest fire season.
While the situation in the Rim country is better than a year ago, "a lot depends on precipitation during the next month,"said Bob Ortlund, district fire management officer for the Payson Ranger Station.
"We've been running between moderate and high fire danger recently," Ortlund said. "We've had a lot more winter moisture than the previous year, and that has helped quite a bit."
But, he added, campers still need to exercise extreme caution.
"Even if we're in better shape than last year, campfires can get out of control very easily," he said, "and we're headed into that time period that is always dangerous."
The good news is that the Rim country's fire season, which began extremely early last year, has returned to normal.
"Our most critical time for fire danger will be mid-May through June, and last year it was a lot earlier," Ortlund said. "By this time last year, we already had some campfire restrictions. The soil still has some moisture, as do the heavier fuels like logs."
The Forest Service is taking advantage of more moderate conditions to accomplish some prescribed burns.
"We have two going on right now: one north and one south of Young, and we hope to do some in the Tonto Village area this spring as long as it doesn't get too dry," Ortlund said.
Windy conditions the last few days have not helped the situation, Payson Fire Chief John Ross said.
"We monitor the weather daily, and the winds have pushed us into the high fire danger range the last couple days," Ross said.
But the fire chief also said his department is in better shape to battle wildfires than it was a year ago.
"After the serious conditions of last year, we have worked hard to get additional personnel trained for wildland firefighting. We want to continue to grow in that respect because we do sit in the middle of the Tonto National Forest."
A list of more than 22,000 communities threatened by wildfires is expected to be released by Congress in the next few days. Ortlund said virtually every community in the Rim country is on that list.
"Every state was asked to draw up a list for Congress," he said. The large number of communities included reflects the fact that people are building homes farther into the forests, especially in the West."
Ross said his department asks Rim country residents to build prudently and to keep a defensive area of 30 feet or more cleared around their homes. Thinning trees to prevent crown fires also is a good precaution, the chief said.
Campers are also reminded to be extremely careful with campfires.
"It's important to have a water source at the campsite, and to make sure campfires are completely extinguished," Ross said.
Procedures and schedules for severity patrols were established at a meeting recently held between local fire departments and the Forest Service.
"These involve smaller (brush truck) engines patrolling the entire region to engage the public, to talk about fire safety and prevention, to help manage campfires, and to serve as quick response units so smaller fires don't get out of control," Ross said.
Weekend patrols begin May 18, with the Forest Service manning three engines and the Payson, Diamond-Star, Pine-Strawberry and Mesa del Caballo fire departments combining to manage a fourth engine. Patrols will operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekend until the monsoon rains begin.
Long-term weather forecasts call for above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation in the Rim country this summer, Ortlund said.
"If that turns out to be true, we will all have to be extremely careful," he said. "As we wait to see what happens with the weather this summer, we're just starting to wave the caution flag."