It's only March, but forest fires have already consumed more acres in the Payson Ranger District than all of last summer.
"In 2003, we had pretty dangerous fire conditions," Payson Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts said. "We had 106 fires on our district that totaled 28 acres. This year, we have already had five fires and they have taken over 65 acres."
The continuing drought, punctuated by a dry winter, created conditions that favored an early start to the wildfire season.
"We're experiencing a little bit more active fire behavior than we would ever want at this time of the year," Roberts said. "It's not normal for us to get fires in March, and we had three this past weekend. That's kind of alarming."
Between March 9 and March 20, the Payson Ranger District experienced five fires, and another large fire occurred in the Pleasant Valley Ranger District. All were caused by lightning.
"That's an unusual thing for us to get this time of year, but because of all the heat, we're getting thunderstorm activity we don't usually get," Roberts said.
The fires included a 40-acre fire on Armour Mountain in the Pleasant Valley Ranger District that was discovered on Thursday, March 18.
There was another fire March 19, that was a 50-acre blaze on Horse Mountain south of Christopher Creek in the Hellsgate Wilderness Area.
The next day, another fire burned 15 acres along the Little Diamond Rim.
One concern is that the district has not yet mobilized the Payson Hotshots and other firefighting personnel and has had to fight the early blazes with a skeleton crew.
"This time of the year, we don't have the kind of staffing we do during the fire season," Roberts said. "On Friday when we spotted (the fire on Horse Mountain), we had a total of four people to attack that fire.
"Saturday we got two more, so we had a total of six to rein in that 50-acre fire in pretty extreme terrain. It's a credit to those guys that they can handle it, but it's not our preference."
Unfortunately, there is little immediate relief in sight.
"The National Weather Service says that the southwest will continue to experience record-breaking heat," Roberts said.
Early closure possible
Tonto National Forest officials will continue to monitor conditions and have not ruled out an early forest closure to reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire.
"If conditions continue from high to extreme, forest officials will clearly be looking at doing that," Roberts said. "It's our preference to keep our public lands open, but when situations become so extreme -- when property and resources and human life are at risk -- that takes precedence over recreation."
Tree removal under way
Thinning of trees on 670 acres south of Pine has begun under a contract awarded to a New Mexico firm. Larry Holliday of Holliday Timber began work under the contract Friday, March 19.
"Basically, in that area, we're removing 850,000 board feet of timber," Roberts said. "Out of that, 370,000 board feet will be from live trees and 480,000 will be from dead trees. What we're doing is reducing tree density south of Pine and diminishing the fuel load. The trees are just too thick in there."
Roberts said the largest area is southeast of Pine, with just a small unit being cleared on the west side. The contract stipulates that all work be completed by Dec. 31, 2005.