Monsoon Lightning Starts Two Forest Fires

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Two new fires are burning in the Tonto National Forest, but officials are fairly confident they don't pose a serious threat.

The Barn Fire, in the mountains southwest of Rye on the Barnhart Trail, began Saturday morning and is about 25 acres in size. Two crews are currently fighting the blaze, and retardant will be dropped on it as aircraft fighting other fires can be freed up, according to Brenda Straw, customer service representative for the Payson Ranger District.

The Maverick Fire, which began Sunday evening, is located in the northwest quarter of the Mazatzals southwest of last year's Peak Fire. The blaze has so far consumed a quarter acre.

"Both of them are in very rugged terrain," Straw said. "We're not real concerned because of the humidity and where they're located. They're not going anywhere."

Last Wednesday, local firefighters pounced on three wildland fires ignited in the Rim country by lightning strikes.

The largest, the Pine Fire, was west of East Verde Estates on a ridge top and reached three acres in size before firefighters got the upper hand.

Two other fires, both listed at one-tenth of an acre, were also extinguished one, the Straw Fire, erupted on Strawberry Mountain, and the other, the Cedar Fire, began in the northeast corner of the Mazatzal wilderness area.

"This time of year, we expect a lot of starts, but the guys from our engine crews got them out really quickly," Gary Roberts, Payson Ranger District fire prevention officer, said. "Many crews from other forests are still in town and helping out as well."

Until the downpour Monday night, officially 1.29 inches according to Anna Mae Deming, rainfall had been minimal. Roberts is optimistic there is much more to come.

"We're just starting to build into the monsoon season, and I think we're going to get more," he said.

Parts of Payson and some surrounding communities received up to .75 inches of precipitation Wednesday, but others received no precipitation or substantially less. The Valley was rocked by a monsoon storm Sunday evening that produced over two inches of rain in some locales.

Even though it's early in the monsoon season, Roberts said people are already calling the Payson Ranger Station to ask when the Tonto National Forest will reopen.

"My biggest concern is that people tend to have short memories and they can become complacent very quickly," he said. "We're in a record drought year and the last significant rainfall before this week was 72 days ago. You get a hundredth of an inch and some clouds in the sky and it's like, 'OK, let's break out the barbecue."

The Payson Ranger District issued a reminder that the Tonto National Forest remains closed due to extreme fire danger.

All activities on Forest Service lands under closure are prohibited for residents as well as visitors, including hiking, riding horses, hunting, camping, and operating motorized vehicles. All trails within closure boundaries are off limits.

With just 4.5 inches of precipitation from Oct. 1 through April 30, the area is 65 percent below the 69-year average of 12.7 inches. The Monday evening storm produced the most precipitation so far this year, according to Anna Mae Deming.

During the summer of 2000, also a time of extreme dryness, the Payson Ranger District averaged six wildfire starts a day.

"This time of year, fires can pop up pretty quickly," Roberts said. "But if we get the moisture flow, along with the extra resources we have here to give us a hand if something happens, we should be able to handle it. So far, so good."

The Tonto National Forest could re-open in a week to 10 days, Jim Payne, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said. About 80 percent of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests re-opened Saturday.

The areas within the Rodeo-Chediski Fire remains closed until further notice. Aerial seeding of those areas has begun. A grass seed mixture is being used to rapidly establish cover for more than about 10,000 acres scorched by the largest wildfire in Arizona history.

For updated information on closures go to www.fs.fed.us/r3/ asnf.

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